Women/Men: The Next Conversation

8 Oct

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual Women’s Power Conference at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The theme of this year’s conference was “Women/Men: The Next Conversation.” Combing through the roster of speakers prior to attending, I found a handful of familiar names—Carlos Andrés Gómez, Tony Porter, Michael Kimmel, Ted Turner—but the conference’s title still left me intrigued. What exactly would we be talking about? This was a women’s leadership event, yet men were being introduced to the conversation. “Sure,” I told Masculinities 101, “I’ll write about it.”

Now as I look back, attempting to summarize the three day event, I’m having an extremely difficult time finding a focus. Most speakers brought up the challenges of intersectionality—race, gender and economic status (just to name a few) all factor into this work of finding the most effective way of bringing women and men together, of encouraging inclusiveness. Nearly 500 of us arrived at the scenic Omega campus, excited and curious, quickly shaking hands and introducing ourselves to our neighbors, quick to ask each man in the audience the reason for their attendance. The introductory speaker had those under 30 stand up (just a few of us), then those who identified as male (just a bit more), then those who fit both categories (even less). Some came for their female spouses, others were doing pro-feminist work in their own communities and wanted to learn more. My first “women’s conference” wasn’t women talking about women, it was introducing men into the feminist conversation.

“Surrender safe territory and stay in the conversation,” said Vinny Ferraro in his characteristically calm voice early Saturday morning. Vinny serves as the training director at Challenge Day, an organization that creates safe spaces in high schools for intimate and connective conversations. We then only had a few moments to mentally prepare for the extremely emotional (unbeknownst to us at the time) couple of days ahead of us.

There were the incredibly inspirational speeches, like that of Diana Nyad, the first person to successfully swim from Florida to Cuba—the fact that she’s a 64-year-old female hardly needs to be mentioned. “Find a way,” she repeatedly told us. She had the whole audience in tears (at least as far as I could see through my own blurred vision), praising the Cubans for having it all figured out. As they honored her in a ceremony that played the Star-Spangled Banner for the first time in 30 years, never once did they mention “woman,” “athlete” or her age, but only “the power of the human spirit.” Carlos Andrés Gómez had the entire room in breathless silence as he recited intimate spoken word poetry about his family, and his journey to becoming a man. Later, during one of the panels, he added, “You can only expect the person across from you to be as courageous as you are.”

Others focused a bit more on recent research that has been conducted on the subject. Barbara Annis, an expert in Gender Intelligence and advisor to over 75 Fortune 500 companies, explained the biological factors that contribute to the gap between the genders. She acknowledged the difference between males and females—for example, the amygdala is larger in men, while the insula is larger in women—and therefore stressed the importance of inclusiveness to lead to greater success. While women embrace more divergent thinking and men more convergent thinking, the combination of the two has proven to lead to better results in businesses. “When you’re empowering women and girls, you gotta include men and boys,” she said.

Michael Kimmel had the entire audience laughing with his declaration of men’s “premature self-congratulations” in most situations—pro-feminist work being one of them. “Without confronting men’s sense of entitlement, we’ll never understand why men resist gender equality. He lightheartedly added, “It’s a marketing thing, I have to sell gender equality to men.” Later, Sarah Jane Glynn, the Associate Director of Women’s Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, gave a stunningly clear depiction of the gender wage gap. “It takes an additional degree to make as much as a man,” she summarized. Regardless of the major.

But most speakers soon diverted from the subject of their work to reach something much more personal, and in doing so, embraced what they termed as “vulnerability.” The word continually resurfaced throughout the weekend, and now as I reflect on such a spectacular event, I keep returning to vulnerability, and that first quote by Vinny. None of this work is particularly safe—the speakers at Omega stressed that we are all pioneers in this field. There is no graduation, both Tony Porter and Carlos told us, it’s a constant learning process. We are striving to find equality without failing to recognize undeniable biological differences. We are playing with extremely sensitive and fragile concepts, ones that serve a large role as being identifiers.

Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, kept it simple. “It’s pretty basic,” he said. “The beginning of reconciliation is admitting you’re wrong. Then you begin building a bridge.”

_______

Natascha Yogachandra is a freelance writer and the chairperson of Hope is Life Foundation. Her work can be found at The Atlantic and Narratively.

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