In 2018, heralded as the year of the women, the #MeToo movement reverberated across all walks of life and a record-breaking number of women were elected to Congress.
One month after that election, I was one of nearly 20,000 women who gathered in Boston for the 2018 Massachusetts Conference for Women.
With female empowerment movements like Time's Up actively pushing for change, I shouldn’t have been as surprised to learn that the annual event sold out in minutes, according to organizers.
What messages would I, on assignment from "Good Morning America," learn alongside 20,000 driven, passionate women? I set out to listen, learn and find out.
"Every day is a male conference," said attendee Heather Martin, who who works in the pharmaceutical industry. "In 2018, we still have such a male-dominated view of performance. I think it's super important that we have these conferences for women and I will always attend them."
I met women at the conference, from attendees to organizers and speakers, who said, like Martin, that in the era of #MeToo, there is a greater need than ever before for women to be in a space that allows them to meet, connect, learn and share.
Every day is a male conference
“Having a community of women here to collaborate, exchange ideas and inspire each other is still needed and probably will be still needed for some time to come,” said Kara, 47, who works in higher education in Boston and asked that her last name not be used. "I found it very empowering and very inspiring to be in a group of such accomplished women who are making change."
The aura of empowerment was felt just as much inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center as it was discussed. Attendees walked proudly around the massive, airport hangar-like space that was filled to the brim with women, and some men too, of all ages, races, backgrounds and professions.
"I think women this year, with the environment that we’re in, feel more empowered and more energized," said Micho Spring, one of the conference's founders. "They’ve come more ready to absorb these inspirational speakers and be able to take them and do something significant when they go back."
Empowerment was on the agenda in the dozens of breakout sessions, open to all, on everything from negotiating at work to creating a side hustle. I saw women freely ask questions and get real about the obstacles they face, from sexual harassment to career advancement to the pressure of overwhelming expectations.
That word that I’m trying to find in myself and in the world for women’s lives is relaxed
"Being a woman in a professional setting is a skill set in and of itself, regardless of the industry," said one attendee who works in the pharmaceutical industry and asked that her name not be used. "So it's helpful and empowering to hear different women's experiences and how they navigate."
A relaxation revolution for women
While empowerment was the buzzword, the speakers over the course of two days used words like relaxed, dialing it back, self-care, gratitude and patience in their messages.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestselling "Eat, Pray, Love," who delivered two keynote speeches at the conference, said she wants the key word of the next women's revolution to be relaxation.
Words like bad-ass, fierce, powerful, resilient and brave, Gilbert told attendees, "don't actually feel revolutionary to me."
"The reason is, every single woman I know and admire is already that," she said. "Women have always had to be those things in order to survive. That word that I’m trying to find in myself and in the world for women’s lives is relaxed."
"It is possible to walk through this terrifying furnace of this world in a sense of absolute relaxation in your own skin, knowing that you are not driving this thing, you are just part of it," she said at the end of her keynote. "If you can really get down into that sense of safety and peace, you can know that when there is something for you to do, you will be told, and until then, it’s all gonna be alright."
It's empowering just to know that I'm not alone
Gilbert suggested that women could even dial the effort they gave to 70 percent. They would, she said, quickly learn that that is enough and would give them the time and space to focus on themselves.
Gilbert spoke about how early in her career, and at the advice of another woman, she started passing on opportunities like going out to dinner and vacationing with friends in order to give herself space to write. She challenged women in the audience to "keep asking yourself with courage and with consistency and with honesty, what you are willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?"
Another speaker, Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, spoke not only about the tireless advocacy work she has done for survivors of sexual abuse, but also about her embrace of gardening and meditation as tools to help herself heal.
"I recommend that you all take time for yourselves, every single day," she said. "I saw a quote that said, ‘Everyone should take at least five minutes for themselves every single day.' If you’re thinking, ‘I don’t have time to take five minutes for myself because I’m too busy,’ then you need a full hour every single day.'"
Jesmyn Ward, a two-time National Book Award winner and a MacArthur Genius, told the group about the benefits of being patient and the success she found after making time for herself to develop and nurture her craft of writing. Shawn Achor, bestselling author of "The Happiness Advantage," spoke about taking the time to practice gratitude and the ripple effect of success that will have.
Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer, spoke about her optimism in this moment of reckoning and the "defining moment in the fight for gender equality."
The nation's largest women's conference at this moment in time
The Massachusetts Conference for Women was founded 14 years ago by four female leaders in the Boston area who were pioneers in their own fields.
They were tasked by the state's then-Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey with creating a conference for women in Boston similar to one Healey had attended in California.
The first year the conference was held, around 2,500 women attended. The 14-member, all-female board of directors, which still includes the four founding members, now oversee the country's largest conference for women.
A one-day workplace summit was added to the agenda this year to allow for more people to attend the sold-out conference and to reflect new challenges in the workplace that emerged from the #MeToo movement.
"I think women understand the importance of investing the time in themselves," said Marian L. Heard, a founding member and the board's current vice-chair, said of the conference's growth. "I think women understand the concept of getting advice from people who have been there and companies are willing to invest in the conference to make sure their people have the opportunity to be here."
The conference, sponsored by companies including Target, Dell, State Street, Cisco and Wayfair, costs around $200 to attend. Many attendees receive grants from their employers to attend.
For those wondering what the return on investment is for the $200 ticket, Achor, one of this year's speakers, conducted research that was published this year in the Harvard Business Review.
Achor's research found that in one year, women who attended the conference doubled their likelihood of receiving a promotion and tripled their likelihood of an at least 10 percent pay increase. Nearly 80 percent of attendees reported feeling "more optimistic about the future," while 71 percent of attendees said they felt "more connected to others," a feeling of social connection that Achor has found is a key component of happiness.
It is clear that women are breaking glass ceilings and have more opportunities before them than ever before. But a gathering of women like this one in Boston reminds us that being a woman and being a woman in the workplace remains a unique experience.
"You do notice the disparities between men and women," said Laura, a 23-year-old who works in technology and asked that her last name not be used. "I’ve been on conference calls with 20 people where I’m the only woman. It’s hard to find your voice."
"It's empowering just to know that I'm not alone and we're all just trying to navigate together on things like knowing when and how to speak up, promotions, equal pay, sexual harassment," said another attendee, 39-year-old Tasha Crichlow, of Boston.
The conference's director, Laurie Dalton White, said she used to get eye rolls about a gathering of women. Now, speakers and attendees travel across the country to participate.
"Fourteen years ago, there weren’t a lot of conferences for women and there weren’t a lot of opportunities [for women] to come together as a community," she said. "Everybody’s interested now in all things women."
For some men, it was an "honor" and "inspiring" to attend the conference.
"I feel really excited because I think about my niece who grew up with a single mom and put herself through college. I want her to reflect on the fact that there are so many opportunities for her, that she can come to a place like this," said Jack Maniseng, who attended with his female coworkers. "It's inspiring."
The importance of gathering women together so they do not become, in the words of attendees and speakers, "complacent," was also made clear.
"Even if it’s not something you think about every day, it’s something to be aware of," said Samantha, an attendee who works in e-commerce technology. "I don’t think it’s a bad thing, the fact that we need this type of conference."
One attendee, Shirley Edwards, best summed up the transformative power of gathering thousands of women together in one space.
"You come in here like an empty vessel and you leave full," she said.