GUEST BLOGGER | Teens Find Empowerment at Texas Conference for Women by Ilene Haddad

GUEST BLOGGER | Teens Find Empowerment at Texas Conference for Women by Ilene Haddad

My colleague Ilene Haddad and I usually spend the Texas Conference for Women together, wandering the trade show and live-tweeting panels. This year’s convention was incredible. Some of the best keynotes I’ve attended in the history of the conference including a conversation with Sheryl Sandberg and a jaw-dropping, inspirational talk by the brilliant Viola Davis.

Ilene had the chance to meet up with a group of young women, some of whom were attending for their very first time and interview them about feminism, social media and their experience at the conference. I’m proud to share a piece Ilene wrote based on those conversations here as a guest blog post:

Back row, L-R: Cat Orman, Blossom Maduafokwa, Cameron Watkins, Cecilia Cosby, Maya Shamir, Katia Peppas; Front row: L-R: Colleen Hynes, Anna Sheinberg, Miranda Ayres

I sometimes wonder if younger women really “get” that they are reaping the benefits of the women before them who have fought for equality, or if they take it all for granted. I wonder whether they realize, for example, that despite how horrible it is to read today’s headlines about unwanted groping, it’s a big improvement over all the years it wasn’t considered worth reporting on at all. I was thrilled to realize at the recent Texas Conference for Women, I needn’t have worried. These young women definitely get it.

In addition to its mission to “promote, communicate and amplify the influence of women in the workplace and beyond,” the conference is dedicated to inspiring the next generation through its Young Women’s Program, a specially designed seminar track for high school juniors and seniors. I had the great fortune of getting to talk to eight high school seniors from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School about their impressions.  

First, I was thrilled to learn from their teacher, Colleen Hynes, Ph.D., that there was a lot of competition for the eight tickets. I couldn’t help but silently compare this to my own class field trip where we went to a bakery and literally watched bread rise. When I was 17, would I have even put my name in a hat to come to this conference without boys?

But these students were excited to attend an event where thousands of women gathered to learn from each other and guide the next generation. As the young women approach graduation, they are acutely aware of the struggles awaiting them outside the bubble of high school.

The highlight of the conference, for them, was Anita Hill’s keynote address. Hill testified about sexual harassment by her former boss, Justice Clarence Thomas, 10 years before these young women were even born. They were heartened to hear encouraging words from one of the most powerful voices to lead a movement to end sexual abuse and harassment but expressed dismay that there has to be a swell of women’s voices before anything changes.

“It’s so unfair that a man’s word is taken over a woman’s,” one student noted. “When the odds are stacked against women, real justice can’t prevail – even in the Supreme Court.”

Another student pointed out that girls and women need to support each other and build more trust and less competition among themselves. They need to have each other’s backs, and they need to stop accepting that people use the way women dress as a way to imply that it’s a woman’s responsibility to control how other people think and behave.

Women and Social Media—beyond Snapchat

In addition to the keynote address, the students attended a breakout session about how to make the transition on social media from personal to professional. I came to social media as an adult, so my learning curve was different from theirs. People didn’t know as much about me when we first met. The admins at my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin, didn’t know what I ate for dinner last night or which Netflix shows I binged on over the weekend.

I asked the students how they felt about the session and found it interesting that not all of them use social media. I was also surprised the speaker addressed LinkedIn. I thought it was just for old people like myself, but I discovered that wasn’t true. Speaker, Alex Wolf said because of LinkedIn’s great SEO, when someone (like a college) searches for you, your LinkedIn profile will probably be in the top two or three results.

“I appreciate the holistic nature of social media,” one student said. “I can see parallels between students searching for colleges and adults searching for careers. Both want to see extracurricular activities to learn about who you really are.”

Another student agreed. Building a profile and network on LinkedIn will allow her to present herself in the most professional way possible while she applies for college – more so than college applications alone.

The girls had an amazing time. Following the afternoon keynotes, one student said she was speechless. Another felt overwhelmed during the talks as more than 7,000 women were in one place together to share progressive goals and individual stories. After one of the panels, a young woman said she “felt like [she] had been to church!” They all agreed it was an inspiring and transformative day, and they’ve already been brainstorming about how to bring that energy back to campus to inspire their peers. Don’t let the Kardashians fool you—the continued effort toward progress for women is in good hands.