The website for Tech’s 2008 Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC) shows a table of young, smiling women enjoying a catered meal. Upon closer inspection of the background of that picture, one can spot two glassy-eyed, half-asleep men.
It’s not that the event is boring – far from it. The reception in front of the Student Center on Friday, Nov. 7, featured a live harpist, second-year STAC major Samantha Osteen. There was a silent auction with items ranging from paintings to bagpipe lessons. And, the pre-dinner entertainment featured a five-minute interpretive dance routine.
Laura Stiltz, the WLC conference chair, hopes the conference she organized can help create a world where male and female leaders are on equal footing. “I hope one day that [this conference] is not necessary. But, for now it will be nice to have this environment where women can come together,” Stiltz said.
I expected Stiltz to be a 30-40 year old staff member of Tech’s Women’s Resource Center, someone who’s paid to manage this 380-attendee conference that is now in its 12th year. A volunteer barred my entry to the ballroom to search for Stiltz, but kindly called over an exuberant, blonde student volunteer in black business wear.
Thinking, “No, I’m supposed to be interviewing the conference chair, not some student,” I realized this was Stiltz. This gigantic 2-day event featuring invited speakers, corporate sponsors and a catered dinner was organized in her spare time. Prior to dinner, Stiltz, a fourth-year MATH major, agreed to an interview in the blocked off ballroom.
She first got involved with the WLC as a freshman. “I received an e-mail looking for people to serve as workshop chair, and I thought, ‘That sounds interesting!’” Stiltz said. Three years of volunteering with the WLC led her to the conference chair position. “[I] was selected by the previous chair and the advisory board after a written application and an interview,” Stiltz said.
Working towards equality for women leaders, Stiltz sees this conference’s purpose as creating a space where women can “come together, network with each other, lift up one another and celebrate leadership.” She also says that the recent presidential election helps her cause because of a “change in the way people view minorities [in leadership positions].”
Between three phone calls and questions from volunteers, she thanked every student on the volunteering committee twice, calling them “absolutely fabulous.” Potentially fabulous volunteers, including men, are encouraged to apply for the 2009 conference committee.
After the interview, people began spilling into the ballroom. I picked up a delicious (and free for the press) dinner, and sat down at a table with Tech faculty and staff members as well as Lou and Belinda, two sponsors from Hewlett Packard.
The Tech employees at the table found out they were all nominated for the women of distinction awards given out by the conference later that night, while Lou and Belinda laughed about being in such esteemed company. All conversation abruptly halted, though, for the interpretive dance entertainment mid-dinner.
Following the energized dance show, the crowd welcomed a relaxing change of pace from the keynote speakers. First up was Sue-Ann Allen, executive assistant to the president and professor of chemical engineering. Allen spoke about the changing demographics at Tech, from the admittance of the first two female engineers in 1952 to this year’s entering class of 32 percent women.
The invited speaker was Tech alum, Chelsey McGee (IE ’94). McGee competed in track and field at Tech before founding CG Interactive, a web-development company, after the dot-com bust. McGee delivered an inspiring speech about personal attributes necessary for success: contentment but not complicity with life, remaining true to oneself, valuing oneself and believing in a greater motivation that personal pleasure.
The female students in the room laughed with and cheered for McGee by the end of her speech. They should have been taking notes too, because after Saturday’s full-day leadership workshop and 14 years in the real world, one of them will likely be in McGee’s place.