The Massachusetts Conference for Women moved online this year, but that didn’t stop around 17,000 people from signing up to spend the day on Thursday listening, networking, and learning. And this year, registrants could (and did) participate from anywhere in the world. As programming kicked off, the live chat box filled with greetings from everywhere from Boston and its surroundings to Denmark, Austria, and Poland.
“It’s way more than women of Mass. this year — it’s a mass of women from all over,” said singer Alicia Keys during her early afternoon keynote address.
In this year, when women are being disproportionately forced out of the workforce amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and America is undergoing a long-overdue confrontation with centuries of systemic racism, many of the conference’s speakers emphasized the need for unity and a positive mind-set, but not at the cost of women of color.
Keys encouraged women to “hear their own voices” when making choices for themselves, and support one another. “It’s time to collect our blessings,” she said in conversation with Fortune magazine editor Ellen McGirt. “”When we show up for each other, we get a say in who’s hired, in who gets a seat at the table.”
Keys, who recently partnered with the National Football League to launch a $1 billion endowment fund in support of Black-owned businesses, called the ongoing conversations about racial justice in America “imperative.”
“I’m excited that people are awakened and focused to do this type of work,” she said, inviting McGirt to share her own thoughts.
“Ask the question, ‘who is not in the room, and why?’” McGirt said. “Who is not in my friend list, my LinkedIn list?”
The conference, which was criticized last year for relegating roundtables aimed at women of color to a small area with limited capacity, introduced a new themed programming track titled “Justice, Equity, and Inclusion.” Offerings on this track included a session on active anti-racism by public academic and activist Rachel Cargle; Cambridge-based “Waking up White” author Debby Irving and consultant Ritu Bhasin advising would-be white allies on common pitfalls; and Essence Communications Inc. interim CEO Caroline Wanga speaking on code-switching in the workplace.
“Anti-racism work cannot rest as a space of self improvement for white women,” Cargle said during her session, which was attended by around 2,200 viewers and directed so much traffic to her website that it temporarily crashed. “Black lives should benefit from this work, not simply white people feeling better about how they’re existing within a racist world.”
Keynote speakers also included actress and rapper Awkwafina, a.k.a. Nora Lum, who candidly spoke about her struggles with imposter syndrome and the perils of being typecast as an Asian actor in conversation with CNN journalist Lisa Ling.
“We need people behind the scenes that are writing authentic characters,” she said. With her semi-autobiographical show, “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens,” she said, ”I wanted to show an Asian-American experience that was true. It didn’t have to check boxes. It just was what it was.”
In her keynote slot, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shared her thoughts on the advice past chief executives might give to President-elect Joe Biden as he prepares for Inauguration Day next month. “How many people would send ill-advised tweets ... and would benefit from Lincoln’s ‘hot letters?’” Goodwin askedwryly, referring to Lincoln’s practice of writing angry notes that he never sent.
The conference’s speaker lineup also included Admiral Michelle Howard, the first Black woman to command a US Navy ship; economic justice advocate Stephanie Land; and “The 5 Second Rule” author Mel Robbins.