This article was originally published in CBC Hamilton, Oct 21. 2012
It’s not everyday you watch as someone stands up at city hall and makes a personal pledge to help women advance as leaders in the community.
“I pledge as a strong black woman to not let labels define who I am and to do what I want to do,” third year McMaster student Inemesit Etokudo told more than 100 people at a Leadership Summit for Women.
Social media enthusiast Kathy Woo may not be as comfortable voicing her pledge but she found a way in 140 characters on Twitter.
And her promise to advance women was equally powerful.
“I didn’t have the courage to pledge out loud but I pledge not to be a one-day feminist & cont to engage w women leadership potential #lsw2012,” Woo tweeted.
Those pledges were part of a day long discussion Saturday about the current state and future of women in leadership.
Co-organized by the YWCA of Hamilton and McMaster University, the annual Leadership Summit for Women brought together men and women, to discuss the challenges to women of moving upward to leadership positions.
This year, the second summit, registration doubled to 200.
There were 11 workshops covering topics on female mentorship, politics and professional development.
Shared space to discuss women’s roles
Knowing that the term “leadership” is a complex one YWCA’s program coordinator, Alicia Ali wanted to include different voices on the table of panelists.
“We’re trying to capture the very city of Hamilton, which is itself very diverse,” she noted.
Mindful of this broad definition of women leadership, Ali and the planning committee enlisted the female movers and shakers from different groups to participate in a panel discussion on the topic.
This included female leaders from transgendered, racialized, athletic, academic and indigenous communities.
The seven panelists engaged in a two-hour long conversation with attendees, questioning and challenging descriptors of feminism. Each shared their own experiences as women rising to positions of authority at male-dominated workforces.
For Etokudo, it was refreshing to see a range of women leaders from different backgrounds on the panel.
“We’re dispersed on where we are,” pointing out the diverse profiles of attendees.
But she noted it didn’t need to be that way.
“It’s just coming together. A stepping stone so women do not feel that they have to always hide.”
Ali couldn’t agree more, asking for women to recognize that they are, fundamentally, “on the same platform.”
Current McMaster Student Union president, Siobhan Stewart thought the summit was a concrete example of how women could unite and support one another, despite their own differences to “work together towards real dialogue.”
Stewart asked that women who do not identify themselves as leaders recognize the power of lived experience.
“Each of you can be leaders. Use your own lived experience to transform the world around you,” she advised.
Furthering the discussion
As one of six who planned the first summit at McMaster in 2011, Mary Koziol felt the need to bring this year’s summit closer to the core of Hamilton.
“We need multiple groups to be involved as opposed to limiting this to an artificial world on campus,” she said.
“We can talk about things, issues. But we don’t see the complexity of issues until we experience them,” said Koziol.
Ali, a member of the original planning group, agreed.
“To not further perpetuate the stereotype that Mac is its own community,” she stated. “It’s also part of the broader community.”
The summit was just the beginning of a wider conversation and agenda to empower women.
“Unless we critique and unpack these concepts, we do not go anywhere with it,” Koziol emphasized.
Ali hopes to keep the conversation going by hosting workshops and forums through partnerships with Hamilton organizations.
“Our job is to make sure the momentum doesn’t die.”