Northeastern kicks off Women’s History Month with Women Who Empower symposium

Bridget van Kralingen, a senior vice president at IBM, delivers the keynote address at the Women Who Empower symposium in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on March 1, 2019. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

For all the strides women have made in politics, business, and other occupations, they continue to face significant barriers to full equality: Women still struggle to raise funding to support their businesses. They still aren’t receiving equal pay. And they’re still fighting to have a voice in organizational and policy decisions.

The glass ceiling has started to crack, but there is still a lot of chipping away that needs to be done.

That was the overarching message delivered by speakers at the Women Who Empower symposium inside the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex at Northeastern’s Boston campus on Friday, a day that kicked off Women’s History Month.

“Get on that field and play,” said Bridget van Kralingen, the event’s keynote speaker, sharing a lesson derived from an impressive career as a researcher, psychologist, business and technology consultant, and leader. “And often, you get to change the field.”

Van Kralingen, senior vice president at IBM for global industries, clients, platforms and blockchain, discussed the evolution of her leadership style and offered words of wisdom for the audience about the value of making hard decisions, finding purpose through work, cultivating supportive relationships, and keeping your cool.

“By knowing your stuff, sticking to your guns, and not overreacting, you can actually move things very, very strongly,” she said.

Policymakers, entrepreneurs, business professionals, academics, attorneys, and community leaders tackled more than a dozen issues, including the challenges facing female entrepreneurs, gender equality in the workplace, and the economic costs of sexual harassment.

Panelists comprised of policymakers, entrepreneurs, business professionals, academics, attorneys, and community leaders tackled more than a dozen issues, including the challenges facing female entrepreneurs, gender equality in the workplace, and the economic costs of sexual harassment. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Northeastern strives to be the kind of place where everyone thrives,” said Diane MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement, in an interview prior to the Friday symposium. “When women thrive in these signature areas, like entrepreneurship, then Northeastern thrives. But bringing more women into the entrepreneurship ecosystem is not a Northeastern issue—it’s a national, global issue. We’ve kind of staked a claim of wanting to be leaders in this.”

Friday’s event was the first of several Women Who Empower initiatives taking place across Northeastern’s globally integrated system of campuses and other international sites plan for March. The conversations will continue in Charlotte on March 6, Dubai on March 7, Vancouver on March 20, Seattle on March 21, and San Francisco on March 22. The series kicked off on Feb. 22, with an event in Toronto about the experience of first-generation immigrant women and featuring Sheila PufferUniversity Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy.

With the theme that there has never been a better time to be a woman, Friday’s conference started on a high note. Northeastern professor Alicia Sasser Modestino highlighted the rising number of women in politics, particularly in the House of Representatives and Senate, and in other professional occupations such as medicine and law. There was discussion about the gender pay gap being at an all-time low, especially among workers aged 25 to 34, who make 89 percent as much as men do.

But Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine, said  bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace are still a problem. What’s more, it’s costing employers millions of dollars a year to address claims filed by their workers, she said.

In the world of business and finance, women entrepreneurs struggle to receive angel funding to take their businesses to the next level, said Candida Brush, a professor at Babson College, during a panel on entrepreneurship led by Northeastern professor Kimberly Eddleston. This remains the case even though women-led companies that receive angel funding or venture capital funding perform as well as those run by men, Brush said.  Non-explicit forms of gender biases are still prevalent, Hannah Riley Bowles, a lecturer in public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, told a panel led by Northeastern professor  Jamie Ladge. Paid family leave policies still leave a lot to be desired, Bowles said.

But speakers such as Massachusetts state Sen. Rebecca Rausch, and Tania del Rio, the executive director of women’s advancement for the city of Boston, offered rays of hope by sharing the work they are doing to advance women’s rights. Del Rio is working to bridge the pay gap, improve the accessibility and affordability of child care, reduce the demand for sex trafficking, and create specific programming for women entrepreneurs. Rausch discussed a bill that would create an independent committee in the Massachusetts state legislature to investigate reports of sexual and identity-based harassment.

“If you care about an issue, you talk to your representatives and senators,” she told the audience. “It’s going to make a difference. Please, please speak up. You all have a voice. Let’s hear all of your voices.”

Women Who Empower was created by MacGillivray and Philomena Mantella, the senior vice president and chief executive officer of Northeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Network, who has been appointed president of Grand Valley State University.

Diane MacGillivray, left, and Philomena Mantella created the Women who Empower symposium. Their objective, said MacGillivray, was to build a network to mentor young women, especially those who have entrepreneurial aspirations. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The vision was to build a network of accomplished women to mentor young women, especially those who have entrepreneurial aspirations.

MacGillivray said she took inspiration for the initiative from a General Electric conference she attended in which the women panelists, rather than discussing female-centric issues such as work-life balance or breaking the glass ceiling, instead shared stories about their industries and their personal journeys to finding success in their fields.

The first Women Who Empower symposium was launched in East Village, the day after the 2016 U.S. election. Nearly 200 people, including men, showed up, MacGillivray said.

“What we discovered was not only was there a great appetite for just being together and hearing people’s stories, but that we found energy and power in one another,” MacGillivray said. “It was a catalyst for moving forward.”

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