Igniting Change: Courageously Supporting Equity and Inclusion

Changemakers from across industries gathered once again at the annual Professional BusinessWomen of California conference. Focused on igniting change, speakers discussed the power of resilience, supporting others, and embracing agility with grace.

Recently, the Professional BusinessWomen of California (PBWC) hosted its 32nd annual conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “ignite change,” with a focus on how each of us can make a difference in our workplaces and communities.

Like last year, this conference was held virtually, drawing participants not only from California and the greater U.S., but also professional business women and men from across the globe. This virtual gathering, while having its drawbacks for missing face-to-face connection, enabled more accessible participation for speakers and attendees from diverse backgrounds. 

This year’s conference did not disappoint, including speakers from across industries, spanning multiple generations, all sharing their unique stories of working to make a positive impact. Below are our takeaways from a number of the conference sessions. 

Having the Courage to Lead

Amanda Gorman, who awed the world as the poet laureate at President Joe Biden’s inauguration earlier this year, opened the conference with a poem specifically crafted for the PBWC audience. She shared, “there’s a lot at stake, but making a difference always takes great courage, so we encourage women who dare to stare fear square in its face.” 

She continued, “There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. … It’s how we empower others that makes women’s voices so vital.” Gorman’s positive message continued when she encouraged participants to have the courage to step up and raise their hands to help make powerful change. 

“There’s a lot at stake, but making a difference always takes great courage.”

Amanda Gorman Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, Writer, Activist

Setting the Stage: The Pandemic’s Disproportionate Impact on Women 

In an introductory discussion, Dominica Anderson, PBWC president and board chair, shared troubling insights from McKinsey about some of the negative impacts of the pandemic, setting the stage for the challenges ahead for women in the workforce. She cited, “women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. And, she shared, “More than 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.”

PBWC founder Rep. Jackie Speier named this workforce displacement a “she-session”—a recession that disproportionately impacts women—and further discussed the inequalities the pandemic has caused. She shared, “We’re back to 1988 in terms of women’s participation in the workforce, with women only representing 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs and only winning 3% of venture funding,” she said. “Women continue to earn only 82 cents on every dollar compared to men.” Moving forward, we need to enable flexibility, agility, and resilience for women to regain their prominence in the workforce, she said. 

Listening, Laughing, and Following the Fear 

Writer, lecturer, and activist Gloria Steinem gave her advice for women in the workforce: “Follow the fear, and do it anyway. It will lead to all kinds of inventions,” she said. As a writer, she discussed her fear of public speaking and how through embracing this fear she came to learn the importance of “listening as much as we talk, if we tend to talk too much, or talking as much as we listen, if we’re too shy.”

She touched on how many people wrongly think the equal rights movement is over, so advocating for other women remains important. She added, “a movement is a group of people who provide comfort to each other … that’s the joy of a movement. We can’t do it alone. Movements are fun and enable companionship.” She discussed the importance of enjoying the ride, adding, “Laughter is proof of freedom.”

Connecting With Others to Create Change 

Dr. Bernice A. King, chief executive officer of the King Center, started her session with advice from her mom, King Center founder Coretta Scott King: “Love, care, give, never give up.” She added that to make change, “there have to be enough people who are passionate about presenting an alternative picture.”

She recommended seeking to understand and genuinely connect with others because silos, while comfortable, are dangerous. She added nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding, further emphasizing the need for honest, uncomfortable conversations that heal rather than hurt. Ending with a spirit of optimism, she added, “Change has come. We are making progress. The doors will continue to open.”

Supporting People With Disabilities 

Jessica Cox, a motivational speaker and holder of a Guinness World Record as the first armless pilot in aviation history, advised listeners to “never let fear stand in the way of any opportunity” and provided insights on how best to connect and work with people with disabilities. She recommended using the ACCEPT methodology to contribute to positive interactions with people with disabilities:

  • Acknowledge people with disabilities.

  • Communicate: Ask questions in a way that empowers both parties.

  • Consider what people with disabilities are saying.

  • Empathy needs to come from a position of being considerate rather than feeling pity.

  • People: Address the person before addressing the disability.

  • Trust: Don’t overhelp people.

Listening to Intuition and Being OK With Pivoting

Embracing career change and not seeing it as a failure is key to moving forward, said Valerie B. Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama and former chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “It’s OK to pivot. The plan I made at 21 did not make sense at 31. … You have to listen to the voice inside of you. If everyone is saying this is great, and you're not feeling it, it’s your life and you have to own it,” she said.

To advance in a career path and make the most of an opportunity, Jarrett recommended “to not be afraid of talking about who you are, sharing what your needs are, and what helps you thrive.” She added, “Teams require you to trust each other. Be prepared to work hard. Recognize that you have to earn the trust of both the people that are on your team and those that supervise you. Prove yourself worthy, and be curious about people with whom you work.”

“You have to listen to the voice inside of you. If everyone is saying this is great, and you're not feeling it, it’s your life and you have to own it.”

Valerie B. Jarrett Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and Former Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls

Creating Inclusive Workplaces Through Everyday Actions

“Inclusion is a job for everyone, not just for people with diversity, inclusion, or belonging on their business card,” author Karen Catlin told attendees.  

She explained that women tend to have broader networks with people in their community rather than co-workers, so they need to work harder to deepen professional ties. She offered the following tips for building better networks and developing a culture of inclusion: 

  • Get to know colleagues who have different backgrounds and interests. 

  • Join an employee resource group (with permission) to listen and learn. 

  • Volunteer with nonprofits serving marginalized communities. 

  • Combat interruptions and idea-hijacking in meetings. 

  • Rotate meeting housework, so it’s equitably divided among a team.

  • Recommend co-workers from underrepresented groups for stretch assignments and high-profile meetings, and speak their names to decision makers.

As the pandemic continues to challenge us all, we can lean on the teachings from the leaders featured at this year’s PBWC conference. We can continue to build our resilience muscle, embrace the uncertainty of the future, and come together to ignite change that positively impacts our communities.

Interested in learning more? Check out upcoming events with Professional BusinessWomen of California.

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