I went to a conference this weekend expecting to see women who were staid, women who were certain in their careers, telling their wisdom and sharing their steady paths. Instead I saw a university with a legacy of trailblazers. Their women came together to share the sometimes uncertain, always high-flying pivots they have enacted over their lives.
Brown University’s conference celebrating 120 years of women in the university was one of a kind. I say this because it is not every institution, and particularly not every Ivy League institution, aware of its prestige and relative cache, that is willing to open up discussion of the frank choices that women make as they negotiate career advancement and family commitment.
What also impressed me was how much the conference was not about women’s issues. This was not one big rant-fest. Jokes aside, we did not have group therapy sessions. Any griping about the subtly patriarchal workforce was done in side-sessions, probably over morning coffee, because during main session there were other discussions to be had.
Personal highlights for me were hearing from the women in the education plenary: Is the US heading in the wrong direction? Good question—there’s no easy answer—but boy was it satisfying to hear the debate zinging back and forth. I could not tweet fast enough as I wondered whether teachers were the most crucial influencers in schools, what metrics should be used to measure success, and if you’re a teacher with students who don’t come to school, what the system does to your numbers.
Also notable was the 45-minute speech when President Simmons opened up about her upbringing and journey to be the first African American president of the Ivy League. Here in microcosm is what made her a great president: she didn’t dwell on the fact that she is the first such president; instead she wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be the last. That is the weight of history in the making.
One young person wondered aloud to me if a conference was necessarily women only, given how useful the discussions were. Brave question. She gets to the reverse discrimination of affirmative action there. Here’s my answer:
We all need inroads to transformation, whether it’s a mentor who believes in you, an institution that can lift the burden of student debt from you, or a high school teacher who pushes you to apply for that reach school, because you never know. I wish for a world of more parity, but it is something I am yet to experience. In its absence, I am happy to settle for communities of support, and to celebrate the bravery of women who have gone before me to make this country of relative parity possible.