unConference: Convening Women on Campus in the Age of #MeToo

By Moana Bentin and Joe McGonegal

Another women’s conference?

Those three words haunted our Alumni Relations team’s discussions last summer as we considered which programs to fund for MIT alumni in the year ahead. The MIT Alumni Association had produced or sponsored a series of women’s conferences over the years. Was it the right time for another one?

Even simply by event-planning standards, things in 2017 were different. Eventbrite listed about 400 events called “women’s conferences” in the year, a trend that spiked significantly after October, when the term #MeToo took off.

#MeToo aside, fall 2017 was an intimidating time to set an agenda for a women’s conference at a major research university. Our organizing committee of alumnae and campus partners had varying takes on the many issues women were tackling in the decade–equal pay, the STEM pipeline, leadership in government, workplace safety, reproductive rights, among others. With our alumni relations team, board of directors, fundraising colleagues, organizing committee, academic departments, CEO, and MIT leadership aware of the turbulent waters ahead, we proceeded cautiously.

Fortunately, we’re at MIT, where hacking and flipping traditional models is perhaps more celebrated and ingrained in the culture than elsewhere.

In that spirit, we developed the “MIT Women’s unConference.”

What if we just invited a crowdsourced agenda, we reasoned, and said yes to the larger alumnae community’s ideas, aligned with other women’s entities and their events, and invited all women to participate, even if they weren’t MIT women? Who could possibly feel excluded or dismissed if we turned the powers of convening over to the crowd?

At the very least, the disengaged alumnae out there (our target market) might not balk at a women’s unconference back on campus as yet another women’s conference.

We hosted the unconference a year after the Women’s March brought so many together before dissembling—perhaps inevitably—into competing agendas itself. The unconference, held on March 9-10, followed only a few months on #MeToo, which sent perhaps as much angst as redemption into workplaces across the country.

We invited women to submit proposals for panels, nominate lightning speakers, choose startup and research competition winners, crowdsource mentors with the conference app, explore new jobs at a career fair, and volunteer for various nonprofits showcasing their missions. We invited 25,000 alumnae to vote on which panels would present, and invited another 25,000 women who held MITx certificates to participate in entrepreneur-in-residence meetup and a startup expo.

More than 350 women attended in person, and 600 participated online. Dozens of alumnae proposed panels on topics ranging from research on women’s health to machine learning bias to investing in women. Thirty startups founded by MIT women pitched business plans, a dozen researchers submitted elevator pitches, and more than 100 women shared their work on stage all weekend.

Collaborators from across our campus–MIT Libraries, MIT Museum, MIT Women and Gender Studies Program, the Society for Women Engineers chapter, MIT Hacking Discrimination, MIT Professional Education, MIT Media Lab, and the MIT Symphony Orchestra—sourced content and volunteers, and helped in marketing. Non-alumnae paid as much as $750/ticket to participate in the live conference, and chief sponsor Github hosted an after-hours meetup on the conference’s opening night.

Onto this agenda-less canvas hundreds of our alumnae and students fielded lineups, pitched their business plans, and connected with one another. The good vibes continue, as they do with any conference, and the talk of repeating the unconference began the day everyone went home. The word “more” was deployed 67 times in the conference survey: More options, more events, more speakers, more time, more workshops, more exhibitors, more networking, more attendees.

By some measures, we didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations, but we’ve reconciled with that. But how necessary and urgent it is to convene smart women in 2018. Perhaps 400 women’s conferences in a year is not enough.

Some good news, we hope, will follow a conference like ours. Shawn Achor, writing in Harvard Business Review in February, reported that attendees of a women’s conference “had triple the likelihood of a 10%+ pay increase” within a year of attending, while “71% of the attendees said that they ‘feel more connected to others’ after attending.”

Achor goes on to cite research proving that lightning bugs who simultaneously light up with others increase their chances of survival. “By lighting together,” he says, “they space themselves out to maximize resources, and the increase in their collective brightness would help them be seen.”

Let that be a call to arms for conference organizers everywhere, and let the concept of unconference inspire those with dread of the ordinary to spark some bioluminescence in others.

Moana Bentin is associate director for affinity communities at MIT. Joe McGonegal is director of alumni education at MIT.



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