The first sign that one is at a women’s empowerment conference is that there are women on the stage at all—the all-male panel discussion remains an inescapable part of modern life. The second sign is the footwear. Picture a horizontal line of 4-inch stilettos, dangling at the eye level of the audience, as the women wearing them sit perched on stools. It appears that the first thing a successful, liberated woman does is slide her feet into the most gait-inhibiting shoes available, ideally in snakeskin.
Lands’ End CEO Federica Marchionni, Women in the World Summit, Apr. 23.
Is Tory Burch on the dais, outfitted in her own designs, talking about how women need to believe in themselves more? How about Diane von Furstenberg, saying, “I have never met a woman who is not strong”? Perhaps Jessica Alba, the actress and co-founder of the Honest Company, which markets nontoxic household products, is in a white armchair, asking Gloria Steinem for “tips for how women can excel in the workplace.” Talk of “finding your power,” followed by a discussion on the glass ceiling (or some approximation), “balance” (as if it existed), and securing a mentor (famously easier for men)—these are all indicators, too.
If Tina Brown, the celebrated former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, is there, you know you’ve reached the summit, literally. Her annual Women in the World Summit, a venture she launched in 2010, has done so well that it sold out 2,500-seat venues four years running and expanded overseas, showing that it was possible to monetize female rage. People pay up to $300 per day to attend, and the summit was profitable from its very first year, thanks to sponsorships by such blue-chip backers as Toyota Motor, Dove, Google, and MasterCard. October’s inaugural Women in the World London was packed morning to night with activists from around the world reliving their struggles, movie stars sharing life secrets, politicians, and royalty. During breaks, women milled around a crowded lounge, nibbling on popcorn and tweeting. Adding to the Burning-Man-for-feminists vibe, a gal in a camel’s hair coat passed out postcards soliciting donations for a Mary Wollstonecraft memorial (“from well before the Suffragettes!”). When asked why she was there, Eddie Harrop, a young handbag designer with a cascade of blond hair, said, “I want to be inspired.” Haseena Latheef, the founder of an ethical online fashion retailer, chimed in that she was also seeking motivation. “You think you’ve got issues in life,” she said, “and then you hear what these women are up against.”
Stefanie Ascherl, an entrepreneur in her early 30s and a women’s conference regular, said these events restore hope. “I think a lot of times, being a woman, we’re expected to do everything—have a family, be productive in business. It’s overwhelming,” Ascherl said, fresh from the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, which attracted 8,000 women to hear Alba, Steinem, and Rachael Ray, among others. She added that expectations of being thin and perfect-looking only add to the stress. “When I come to these events and see all of these women doing all these amazing things—it’s pushing me and motivating me to go forward,” she said. “I wonder—if men just sat down and let women do things, maybe some amazing things would happen.”
There wasn’t much time to contemplate the question, because as soon as Women in the World wound down, more summits were about to begin. In fact, it was possible to spend almost every single day last fall at a women’s empowerment or networking event of some kind. The Monday following Brown’s event saw the opening evening of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, geared toward high-level women in the corporate world. Before that lavish three-day extravaganza closed, two more competing women’s conferences were vying for social media attention: the Women’s Forum Global Meeting, in Deauville, France (“to strengthen the influence of women throughout the world”), and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, in Houston (hashtag #OurTimeToLead).