Business & Tech

12,000 women, stories of sexual harassment at women’s conference in Boston

Meryl Streep (left) jokingly bowed down to Gloria Steinem as they arrived to speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Meryl Streep (left) jokingly bowed down to Gloria Steinem as they arrived to speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.

The topic of sexual harassment was not officially on the agenda at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, but it was on the minds of many of the 12,000 attendees who flocked to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on Thursday.

And how could it not be?

Even as they met at the largest women’s conference in the nation, Democratic Senator Al Franken was announcing he would resign following allegations of sexual misconduct. The day before, Time magazine had unveiled the “silence breakers” who spoke up about sexual harassment as its “person of the year,” and The New York Times published a damning report on the widespread coverup surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misdeeds. The special election for the Alabama Senate seat involving Republican candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of making sexual advances on teenage girls, is days away.

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“This is not a new story,” said Shelley Zalis, chief executive of the Los Angeles corporate consulting firm the Female Quotient, who led a session on networking. “The new story is that we’re using our voices and we feel comfortable now because we’re all rallying together.”

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Conference organizers pointed out that while there weren’t specific sessions with “sexual harassment” in the title, the subject was addressed at dozens of workshops and panels, which had been planned months earlier. And the issue was certainly in the air.

“Feminism is fashionable again,” designer Diane Von Furstenberg said during her lunchtime talk.

Actress Meryl Streep and activist Gloria Steinem discussed the #MeToo moments that are surfacing across the country during a free-flowing discussion that touched on gender fluidity, President Trump, and women’s representation on corporate boards. When Steinem mentioned casting directors asking if an actress is “[expletive]-able,” Streep replied that, just the night before, a female executive in Los Angeles mentioned that she had been in a meeting this year in which that very word had come up.

Now, Streep said, we should be shutting down this kind of behavior by saying, “Uh uh, that’s not, you can’t, no, uh uh, no way, you can’t do that anymore.”

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The problem is ingrained in society, Streep said, pointing to Weinstein as “the most gargantuan example of a kind of disrespect that permeates every industry.” Steinem noted that it all started with men’s need to control women in order to control reproduction: “If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine, probably.”

Throughout the day, a number of women and panelists who were asked about the sexual harassment scandal wondered the same thing: “Now what?”

Awareness has increased exponentially in recent months, but simply removing alleged harassers from their jobs is not enough, they said.

Julie McGuinness, who works in finance at the Cambridge biotech company Biogen, is frustrated that claims of sexual harassment are not being investigated more thoroughly, and people never find out what actually happened. “The accusation comes up and they’re just fired,” she said.

Lisa Bacon, who works in marketing for the Waltham pharmaceutical firm Sobi, agreed. “There’s the women’s point of view, the men’s point of view, and the truth,” she said. “Somewhere the truth lies in the middle. And we don’t necessarily know what that is.”

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Corporate response is also lacking, said Zalis, of the Female Quotient, who said in an interview that she had yet to see a company come out with a comprehensive plan to prevent sexual harassment. More than just removing offenders and conducting obligatory sexual harassment prevention trainings, she said, it’s about creating a culture of respect, collaboration, empathy, and transparency.

“The workplace was created over 100 years ago by men for men, when women weren’t in the workplace, so we now have to rewrite the rules,” she said, noting that one of her bosses once told her that the reason she brought in business was because clients thought she was “hot.”

Another panelist, leadership expert Erica Dhawan, sees this as a defining moment for millennial women.

“We are seeing a revitalization of the feminist movement in a different way than ever before,” she said in an interview, citing the #MeToo uprising of women sharing their stories of sexual harassment or assault. “What we need to make sure is that we don’t think that likes on Facebook is the same as driving social change.”

Getting men involved is key, she said, as is making sure they don’t go in the opposite direction and stop interacting with women at work. “I wish that in the future, 50 percent of the audience here was men,” she said of the conference.

Organizers didn’t track the share of men and women at the conference but acknowledged few men attended.

Michelle Beiter and Kate Perruzzi, tech editors at the Norwood semiconductor company Analog Devices, were disappointed by a workshop they attended called “Navigating Office Politics . . . and Difficult People” because the speaker failed to mention either sexual harassment or gender bias. The women were also disappointed that none of the other sessions officially addressed the issues either.

“It seems like fluff,” Perruzzi said of the conference topics. “None of it seems pertinent to the climate now.”

A spokeswoman said that conference organizers are committed to contributing to the national conversation and that the event’s speakers “addressed the vital importance of this movement and offered actions to combat the problem.”

Krista Celia was at the conference to drop off her daughter, Alex, an 18-year-old senior at Somerset Berkley Regional High School. Alex just started a chapter of the Girl Up feminist club at her high school, Celia said, and now the local middle school is starting a chapter, too.

“It’s a little spark that’s growing,” she said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.