I liked the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) annual forum even before it opened, for several reasons: it was being held in Geneva, my home base; and it featured a nearly equal participation of men and women. Over a third of speakers and presenters were women, including a female chairperson, the dynamic Hedda Pahlson-Moller. This level of gender balance in a professional conference is (still) rare and, in my opinion, noteworthy.
Interestingly, a few weeks ago I attended another large international conference, on education in developing and emerging countries. The organizers of this conference regretted the under-representation of women to the extent that they held a special session on how they could interest and attract more female participants and contributors in the future. It appears that gender balance has become a goal to which such meetings aspire.
But, one might ask, does it matter whether a conference such as EVPA’s strives for equal participation of men and women? And does it make a difference for the quality of the meeting?
The most obvious argument for gender balance is equity: women are a significant part of the workforce, slowly but surely also rising to leadership positions in all sectors, including in philanthropy and related fields. Hence it is sensible that they be represented fairly and invited to contribute to any process of reflection such as those that happen during a seminal industry meeting.
Diversity is another reason for including women and men equally, gender being of course only one of its constituents. In a professional sphere, diversity improves productivity and stimulates creativity. A good successful team needs people with strong personal, social and technical skills, as Rodrigo Jordan said at the EVPA conference. A wide range of attributes are required for a team to perform well, and a diverse group is more likely to assemble that breadth of know-how, experience and aptitudes.
Last but not least, a conference that fosters women’s equal participation and features women very visibly as speakers motivates other women to engage more actively, to take on higher responsibilities and to lead. Consequently, it helps to discover and tap new talents. It (still) takes a bit of extra determination to lower the barriers for women to participate and to actively contribute at the cutting edge of an industry. But when that effort is invested, the credibility of the common effort increases and so does its reach and traction.
Ultimately, the EVPA annual conference was interesting, stimulating and enriching, not because a lot of women attended, but because of the unusual diversity of its participants.
Antonella Notari Vischer is executive director of the Womanity Foundation.