October 30th, 2008 | 6:00 am

Scenes from the 22nd Annual Women’s Conference in California

filed under News

by Sima Matthes (New York City)

Corporate leaders shared the stage with big-name stars last week in Long Beach California, when approximately 14,000 women (and a few men, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Matthews, Bono and Michael J. Fox) came together for the 22nd Annual First Lady’s Conference on Women. According to the event’s website, “[t]he Women’s Conference has grown from a small government initiative for working professionals into a far-reaching organization, a life-changing experience, and an international network of women from all walks of life, backgrounds and perspectives.”

As in the past, this year’s conference attendees participated in discussions and presentations on a variety of topics. Two separate “Once In a Lifetime” conversations—one between Warren Buffett and Governor Schwarzenegger, moderated by Chris Matthews and the other Indra Nooyi, Chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo and Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice, moderated by Campbell Brown—bracketed the morning’s breakout sessions.

The discussion between Ms. Nooyi and Dr. Rice began with a question regarding the existence of the glass ceiling:

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it’s getting much, much thinner these days. (Laughter.) Of course. I still think that in our society we have a tendency toward role definition that sees women in particular roles. But it’s changing very, very rapidly. When you have this presidential campaign in which you’ve had Hillary Clinton, who I think was terrific, and now Sarah Palin, who is a fantastic person; and when I might say we haven’t had a white male Secretary of State in 12 years – (laughter and applause) – because there was Madeleine Albright and then Colin Powell and myself, I think the glass ceiling is being shattered.

But you know, it’s going to have to continue to be shattered by girls who really believe that they can be anything that they can be. And I’m not worried about those of us now. I’m worried about girls in the future. They have to see themselves as capable of being in math and science, in engineering. I think that is really the next glass ceiling, is in the hard sciences and in technology. (Applause.)

MS. BROWN: Indra, do you agree?

MS. NOOYI: I think there is a glass ceiling. But it’s glass, and glass means you can see through it and you can break through it. But it’s not easy. And the reason it’s not easy is because the people who are going to help you break through that glass ceiling, at least in my life, have all been men. I think the glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that glass ceiling. That’s what is really going to make a difference. (Applause.)

Doctor Rice followed up: “Women have to help women. It’s also important to realize that it’s okay to be the first. If you constantly look for role models who look like you, then there won’t be any firsts. Sally Ride would not have been the first woman astronaut had she been looking for a woman to follow…And so I try to tell my students – and I am still, at heart, a professor – that yes, it’s important to seek out mentors and role models who look like you and perhaps have gone through some of the same experiences, but don’t limit it to that. Realize that you can find your role models anywhere, in any color, in any shape, in any gender.”

When asked what more could be done to help women succeed, Ms. Nooyi replied “I think there’s a lot more that can be done. I still think childcare at work is not something that is available everywhere. I don’t believe we have taken flex work schedules to the ultimate, still. Technology hasn’t really caught up in all companies. I think leave policies after children…[have] not been addressed, still. I think there’s so much that can be done. And it’s got to happen at some point, because if you look at the demographics, if all companies cannot draw from the entire population pool and have to draw only from a small population pool, I don’t think we can keep up our growth. So we need women in the companies. We need the best people, whether they’re women or men. But some of the brightest candidates we interview are the women. So we have to provide an environment where we bring them in, and – I think – I don’t know if it’s government. I think corporations can do a lot, and I think we have to set the example for government to then follow.”

Read the entire conversation here.

Also billed as “The Nation’s Premier Forum for Women”, this year’s conference highlights included morning breakout sessions on advocacy; entrepreneurship; wellness; how the “wars” women have among themselves will affect the upcoming election; being the caretaker for friends and family facing illness, addiction and disability; leadership skills and financial management.

Women at the top of companies such as BP, PG&E, Wachovia, Mattel and Intuit hosted or moderated the sessions, lending their experience and voices to a wide range of topics including living an authentic life; looking sharp and smart; faith and managing stress.

The afternoon featured a panel entitled “Men We Love Who Use Their Voices”, a discussion between Michael J. Fox and Russell Simmons, moderated by Deborah Norville and hosted by William Margaritis, Senior Vice President, Global Communications & Investor Relations, FedEx Corporation, as well as another “Once In A Lifetime Conversation”, this one between Gloria Steinem Writer, Organizer, and Co-founder of Women’s Media Center and Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and CEO, Children’s Defense Fund.

Another afternoon session–“Life’s Biggest Hurdles: How to Overcome the Unimaginable”—brought candid discussions from families facing cancer, drug addiction and government coverups. Lynn Sherr, Author, Outside the Box: A Memoir, David Sheff, Author, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction and Mary Tillman, Author, Boots On the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, shared their struggles, and their strength with the conference attendees.

A pre-conference event—“Night At the Village”—allowed participants to mix, mingle, shop and eat while benefiting WomenShelter of Long Beach, a domestic violence organization. The “Village” event featured cooking demonstrations, book signings and information on eco-friendly living.

Again, from the conference website, “The Women’s Conference event is the largest and most dynamic gathering of women in the nation. Recognized for its unparalleled capacity to empower and inspire women to become architects of change, the annual conference unites more than sixty internationally-acclaimed leaders and visionaries…to share enriching stories of transformation and success, words of encouragement and life lessons.”

Here’s to the future and to these conversations continuing on our site and others, and in the boardrooms of corporations around the world.

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