My initial thought when presented with the opportunity to attend the Women’s Leadership Conference was: Is this really necessary? I mean, why would I, a 38-year old male in higher education, care to attend a conference on women’s leadership? As far as I can see, in my industry, there’s a seemingly equal male/female spread across departments, and vertically through the echelons of rank. My social media feeds are filled with women in roles that mirror their male counterparts, the media routinely covers growing equality of women in the workplace, regional publications are always highlighting successful women in their area, and didn’t #metoo just hit a grand slam? But, OK, I’d be open to whatever this experience was going to bring to me.
In the week leading up to my departure, I had a series of conversations, and when the WLC came up, I got the first clue that I might not be seeing the whole picture. While leaving a meeting, I was accompanied by several female counterparts, and we discussed our calendars for the coming week. Upon hearing that I’d be heading to the WLC, they both looked at me in apparent shock— and excitement—before exclaiming, “That is so awesome that you’re attending a leadership conference for women!” followed by a “Good for you, Matt!” I even got an "atta boy" from my sister when she saw my LinkedIn post announcing that I’d be attending.
Did I miss something? Why are they acting like I’m saving a beached blue whale? But, when the topic came up with several male colleagues, I was met with looks that said, “Dude, are you for real?” followed by a silly chuckle. I took a step back and asked myself why would it be considered crazy or silly or even extraordinary for me to attend this? I mean, why not me?
The day of the WLC finally arrived. I spent the previous days in meetings at Bay Path and had a chance to play a tiny role in setup at the MassMutual Center. I was immediately impressed with the size of not only the main ballroom, but also, the breakout rooms. I began thinking my expectations had underestimated the turnout this conference generates.
As I entered the main lobby area, I suppose it wasn’t surprising to find myself surrounded by a lot of women. I mean, a lot. As I scanned portions of the lobby, I located one single male in a crowd of several hundred females. I didn’t know if I was looking for common ground or a wing man, but it did make me think: Why would I, a SpecOps Marine veteran with multiple combat tours, a prior Sheriff’s Deputy and SWAT Operator, be striving to find an anchor in a room filled with hundreds, actually thousands of women? This was a completely foreign feeling of intimidation.
OK, so fast forward through the day. The conference was unreal in many regards. The keynotes, speakers, and presenters delivered epic sessions that drew strong focus on the current issues women face both in the workplace and in our communities. They highlighted how difficult it is for women to imagine themselves as leaders in workplaces that may not overtly tell them they can’t lead, but rarely show them they can.
However, I arrived at the pinnacle of my experience during veteran actress Rita Moreno’s afternoon session. One of only four actresses to be awarded the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, she articulated details of routine sexual harassment and assault that she’d experienced throughout her career. That struck a painful nerve inside me. That nerve was my two precious, gorgeous, and all around amazing daughters.
And then I understood why it was necessary for me to be there. It wasn’t for good publicity, or to increase the progressive image of my reputation. I needed to hear the stories, hear the struggles, hear the strategies and practices that are being developed and implemented to promote all women as equal partners in every facet of our lives. And in order to develop a much deeper passion for empowering women, I needed a deeper understanding of the physical, psychological and emotional trauma that woman endure (and sadly often suppress) on a daily basis. I was there for my female counterparts. I was there for all the women in my family and life whom I love so much. I was there for my daughters.
The issues that women face are not "women's issues." They are human issues. We can’t continue accepting the status quo as a simple dilemma that women need to figure out. These thoughts, conversations, and stances should be omnipresent; interwoven into every avenue of our personal and professional lives, for men and women! I left the conference asking myself one question: How will I be an excellent steward of the resources and influences I’ve been blessed with to support, develop, and drive initiatives for all women in this lifetime? Now, I challenge you to ask yourself the same question. Don’t think why should you, think why not you.
Matt Mylott is the Interim Director of the Swain Center for Executive Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He’s also a dad who likes to jump out of airplanes.