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Commentary

The Massachusetts Women’s Conference put diversity in a box — literally

Breakout sessions for women of color meant five small tables in a box at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.
Breakout sessions for women of color meant five small tables in a box at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.Jeneé Osterheldt

I went to the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston on Thursday. They tried to put me in a box. Literally.

More than 10,000 attendees attended this empowering day of networking and inspiration. We were in awe of morning keynote Yara Shahidi, who affirmed the importance of operating from a place of lifting one another. We were fortified by the women on “The Likability Trap” panel. And the standing ovation was instant for Malala Yousafzai and her vital mission to bring equity to education.

This year, in a conference first, there were dedicated roundtables for women of color. From 3 p.m. to 4:40 p.m., five sessions would take place:

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Every 30 minutes, the sessions repeated, for a total of three rounds. A colleague and I excitedly found our way over to the space. I was interested in the conversation about race and hair. She was excited about getting a seat at the table — until we realized there wasn’t enough room and it wasn’t even 3 p.m.

The women of color roundtables were in a small, blue, roped off box. There were exactly five tables with eight chairs each. Eight people per session. Forty women per 30 minutes. These were tiny roundtables. In a conference of more than 10,000 women, only 120 women of color were ever going to get a seat at the tables the Massachusetts Conference for Women designed for inclusivity.

A woman told us we could stand in an already forming line for the second round starting around 3:30, but there’d be no guarantee of entry. I watched women of color stand in line, a line they knew they’d be in for at least a half hour, in hopes to snag a seat at a table in a box. Meanwhile, there were entire ballrooms above them where women gathered freely to talk about leadership, standing up for themselves, and goal-getting.

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My co-worker was frustrated. I was something more. My stomach flipped. My heart ached. And I felt rage start to dance across my arms in a rash of goosebumps. I was witnessing a physical manifestation of the inequity black women and women of color deal with every day as we are put in boxes and forced to jump hurdles and wait our turns for a seat at the table. And even then we aren’t guaranteed a chance to participate.

At the Mass. Conference for Women, a new diversity initiative put women of color in a box.
At the Mass. Conference for Women, a new diversity initiative put women of color in a box.Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff

I know they put the small business and tech roundtables in a box, too. It is not the same.

This conference already features large-scale conversations and breakout sessions on business and leadership. Careers are not the same as dealing with racism and sexism while trying to cultivate a career. And while some of these topics were mentioned earlier in the day, it is not the same as having a major ballroom focus on women of color.

What a woman of color deals with moving in workspaces, hell, just living in this world, is incomparable to the challenges of unique career choices because those job paths are just that: a choice. Our blackness and womanhood? That’s no option. But the reality of our identity limits our opportunities across the board, including in fields like tech and entrepreneurship.

According to Leanin.org’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report, 45 percent of women of color and 76 percent of lesbians are often the only ones of their identity in the office, leading to feelings of exclusion and scrutiny. Of women who are often mistaken for someone in a lower ranking position, 22 percent of Asian women and black women experience this assumption. And 42 percent of black women find themselves needing to prove their competence more than others. All women are dealing with microaggressions at work, but for women of color and queer women, it’s far more challenging.

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If you want to talk about diversity and inclusion, you can’t do it in exclusionary ways. I understand the benefit of intimate discussions. I’m sure for the women who made it to the tables, it was enlightening.

But the privilege of small roundtables feels like a luxury for the lucky in a conference as white — no matter how well-intended — as the Massachusetts Conference for Women. These are conversations for the ballroom unless the core programming digs much deeper into the nuances of intersectionality.

I sat on a couch and took in the horror scene. I thought about waiting because I knew the thought leaders would be worth it. But I couldn’t get over the symbolism of it all, or stop thinking about the many women who didn’t stand a chance of entry.

I refused to fall in line and hope for a seat at the table. I walked up the stairs and out the front doors. But around 4 p.m. I got a text from my colleague.

“So I sort of got in. They kind of crowded the rest of us around the little barrier around her table.”

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Really, Massachusetts Women’s Conference? Tickets are $199 each. This conference, the largest women’s conference in the state, was sold out. And y’all got women of color crammed around the outside of a session looking in for a talk titled, “What Women of Color Need to Know to Get a Seat at the Table” by the brilliant best-selling author Minda Harts?

It’s cruel.

I tried to soothe my co-worker. But she took it all in stride, “That’s all right,” she said. “At least it was something.”

With that, I nearly cried. Too often, we are forced to accept what we can get to grow our dreams. To have to settle in a place meant to empower you? No, thank you.

Late Friday, the Women’s Conference apologized. It said the roundtables “were a pilot program designed specifically because these are topics that we felt are extremely important to cover.’’

“We regret any inconvenience caused due to the limited space. Please know that we never intended to disrespect anyone – our intention was to meet an important need.’’

No, Massachusetts Conference for Women. Empowering women of color is not a “pilot.”

At the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, with its monstrous 56,000 square feet of exhibition space and 84 meeting rooms, you boxed inclusion and checked it complete.

This isn’t holding space. It’s a diversity delusion of grandeur. Wake up.

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Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.