By keeping men out of our events, Women in Digital is exploding on a local level and embarking on a national expansion.

On June 9, 2016, I called a meeting of women in digital and instinctually wrote on the event description, “no men allowed.” I, and the women attending, didn’t know exactly what our meeting would entail. After all, we had never, ever done this before. We would gather, without men, to “tell our stories, our journeys our trials and tribulations as women in digital.” After announcing the event on LinkedIn, all 115 available seats were gone in only four days.

There was no pre-meditation on my part to exclude men, just a very strong tug at the gut. I knew if men were in the room I wouldn’t feel as comfortable sharing my own personal and professional journey. Sure, there are so many men who get it. You know who you are. You’re aware of the systemic gender bias we all face. You own it, face it and you yourself may be a work in progress. You choose to speak up when you see discrimination against a female colleague. You are our champions when we need you most. In this past year, it has been my experience, that the most supportive of our male colleagues understand completely why we exclude them; recognizing that we need this space to regroup, find collective purpose, and to form a community and network more powerful than one we’ve ever experienced. Perhaps, I would argue, it’s akin to what men have naturally had for centuries. As you have been, until recently, the only ones present in the Boardroom, around the water cooler and generally speaking – in the office. And in most companies, you still hold the vast majority of the power, not even to mention in our governing bodies.

When women entered the workforce en masse after the Women’s Rights Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s we lost our community. Prior to working out of the home, we worked largely in the home and we had a network, a village to care for each other, for our children and our families. Suddenly, that was stripped away and many of us were and still are even pitted against each other. The working moms vs. the stay-at-home moms. I hear it all of the time. The judgment from either side. In the workplace, we have viewed each other as competitors for far too long. The best movie setting the stage for this in all of our young minds, us girls of the ‘80s who watched our mothers go off to office jobs, was Working Girl. Sigourney Weaver, the vicious and conniving boss stealing ideas from Melanie Griffith, the defenseless secretary who only finds her power after sleeping with Harrison Ford, Weaver’s colleague and lover. What a stage set in our impressionable minds.

Women can not go on like this. In fact, we aren’t wired to do so. Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, The Mother of All Questions takes on the issue of silencing women. Being heard as individuals is paramount to anyone’s freedom and happiness. But so many of us aren’t heard. And until Women in Digital, I hadn’t been heard and our members hadn’t been heard. Not like this, not in the same context and in the same empowering community where we know we are not alone.

Here’s an excerpt from Solnit I find particularly fascinating:

“For a century, the human response to stress and danger has been defined as a “fight or flight.” A 2000 UCLA study by several psychologists noted that this research was based largely on studies of male rats and male human beings. But studying women led them to a third, often deployed option: gather for solidarity, support, advice. They noted that “behaviorally, females’ responses are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend-and-befriend.’ Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress. Much of this is done through speech and telling of one’s own plight… A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

By meeting without men, Women in Digital is filling this natural need by women to gather in trust. Meeting by meeting, member by member, we are tearing down that competitive framework pitting us against each other. Instead, we are hearing each other, valuing each other’s perspectives and opening up a new line of trust and communication. And we have a lot of catching up to do. During our meetings, now still selling out to crowds of 200 in Columbus, the energy in the room is off the charts and difficult to put into words. No one wants it to end, but we all have to go back to work. Some of us take personal time to attend because our male bosses disprove of all of the time spent on Women in Digital events, not seeing the value. This in spite of our highly educational programming.

Also, I now understand why men fought so hard to keep us women out of their social gatherings and private clubs for so many centuries. I, of course, can never understand keeping women out of the board room, the executive suite or the White House. But gender specific gatherings are important for both sexes. We all need our space. You have your golf courses, we have our spa days. You have your board rooms. We have Women in Digital. And then we all meet in the middle, back in the office, ready to accept each other for who we are as human beings, not as women or men, but as people here to get to work, to be accepted, to be heard and built up not hit on or mansplained.

Between meetings Women in Digital members gather online in our members-only Slack, where channels range from topics on SEO and Social Marketing to Mansplaining or Sisterhood. Also, critical to our success, is a structure we introduce at each meeting called the “Ask and Give Exchange.” Each member must make 12 “Asks” a year and grant 12 “Gives.” The “Asks” are far more challenging as women are naturally included to help, to nurture, but we have been untrained to ask for help, for fear of showing weakness in the workplace. I argue this is a phenomenon only in the workplace because when it comes to motherhood, home, or personal issues I find women are more than ready to ask for help or advice. But when it comes to admitting a perceived weakness at work, the fear strikes us to our core. Personally, I couldn’t list all of the times male colleagues have made fun of me for asking certain questions. I learned quickly, not to ask and to figure it out on my own for fear of the weeks of mockery or subtle teasing that may follow.

At our first kick off meeting in Cincinnati, we didn’t know what to expect. Was Women in Digital a phenomenon contained to Columbus and one meeting at SXSW? Within the first hour, it became clear in that loud silence that follows every one of my opening talks, that Columbus and Austin were not unique exceptions. This group is needed in every city and as quickly as possible. Shortly after Cincinnati, my Marketing Manager, and soon to be travel companion, Michelle Reinold and I laid out a map of the United States on my office floor. My 11-year-old son loved the activity and crouched down to help us plot our trip. To see the country like that, on a piece of paper, and totally, 100% within our reach. This is happening and we’re determined to make it so.

On May 23rd, we start our summer tour with a Women in Digital meeting in Austin and from there we head north to Fort Worth, then Dallas. From there we come back to the Midwest and hit all of the major cities from Cleveland, to Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis. Event St. Louis and Nashville and then in June, we’re off to New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. Find our tour dates here and an event near you. Help us out by sharing our social memes, find those here. And visit our website for information on our upcoming Annual Women in Digital Conference: You Have the Power on October 25-27, 2017.

Ultimately, we aim to reset the narrative for women in the digital profession, and other professions as we expand. Clearly, this isn’t a model limited to our industry and we do intend to clone it for Women in other professions.

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