Ali Collins, Bar Peled, and Marie Perrot are the co-chairs of the first annual Harvard Kennedy School Women in Power Conference, which took place on April 28th, 2018. The conference included panels on salary negotiation and keynote addresses from Senator Maggie Hassan and actress Amber Tamblyn. All three are second-year Master in Public Policy students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Perrot serves as a Program on Education Policy and Governance Fellow.
HPR: What year is this conference in?
Ali Collins: This is the first-ever women’s conference at the Kennedy School.
HPR: What inspired the three of you to put this conference together?
AC: For at least Marie and I, and Bar can speak to this as well, part of the inspiration was that after the 2016 elections, we felt very dejected and wondered what a woman’s place was in politics and in leadership in general. We inquired about what we can do together to embolden women and empower them at this school while we are here. One of our conference leads, Amy Zhou, said that the business and law schools have fantastic women’s conferences, but there is no women’s conference at the Kennedy School. We started talking about it over a year ago and discussed how we wanted to create this space because, to be honest, there is not a lot of space and opportunity to discuss and explore what gender means and what being a woman means at the Kennedy School.
Bar and I wrote an op-ed and cited that there are more courses here at the Kennedy School that list “cyber” in the description than “gender.” That is problematic. One of the things we felt we could do is find a space that women can use to explore and discuss what it means to promote women in leadership as well as bring together allies and men who want to support us and figure out ways that we can talk about gender in a more meaningful way. When we put the proposal together initially, it all started in Bar’s kitchen. Marie, Bar, and I are best friends, so we work with each other all the time on everything. That is part of what made this conference so successful: we are all so close, and all of our strengths and weaknesses complement each other so that we could take this forward. To see what it has become today has just been very inspiring.
Bar Peled: I one hundred percent agree with that. When we designed this conference for the first time, we realized that Harvard Business School is in [conference] year twenty-seven, and I honestly do not think they had more than fifteen percent women there [at the time]. Here, we [are] almost fifty percent women, and there has never been a women’s conference. It is such a huge indicator about how this school and this space treat and prioritize gender and women in particular. We all aspire to be leaders, and we all aspire to be the change. Part of it is being able to build this platform for people to discuss how being a woman affects them no matter where they are.
We started imagining this last year, and we worked on it for probably thirty hours a week since September. When we are so entrenched in the details of something and have a team of thirty incredible women, you never know how it is going to play out. Even when we sold almost four hundred tickets, we wondered, “Are they going to come, are they going to be engaged, are they going to ask the interesting questions, are they going to ask the hard questions, are they going to be here at 8:30am, at 2:30pm, at 6:00pm?”
Attendees are students at Harvard. They are professionals, and they are women, and they are mothers who came with their high-school daughters, and I think that shows such a huge need in our community for a space like this. It has just been incredible to see all those months of planning and imagining this establishment-building, and we are building it to last for years and years.
HPR: So is this something you are planning to continue in future years?
BP: We view it as our legacy: from the way we built the team, the leadership, the brand, thinking about space, and how things are going to look. There is already a leadership team set for next year. [The conference] serves [as] a [critical] platform for gender issues within the school because no one can ignore something of this scale: not the student body, not the administration.
AC: And this conference is entirely student-run, with student volunteers. We put in about thirty hours a week in a good week, and typically, it is more than that as co-chairs. We had to jump through many hoops, but we have learned a lot about shortcuts for next year.
HPR: How has the Kennedy School’s efforts to promote diversity within the student body shaped the vision of your conference?
Marie Perrot: The whole concept is to fill a gap. It is recognizing that the Kennedy School is years behind where it should be when it comes to issues of diversity and even just gender. These are things that are not talked about in the classroom, so we wanted to create a space for this, and the goal of this conference is not for this to be a conversation that [lasts] for one day. Our new Dean of Diversity and Inclusion is walking around and taking a look at what we are doing, along with some of the other faculty. It is students who are putting this on, and we are not doing this just for students: we are equally doing this for the school to recognize that we need a space like this. They have a lot to learn.
AC: We started from the premise that modern feminism means intersectionality. From the beginning, we have made a conscientious effort to make this as diverse of a community as possible. As far as whether that be by race, by gender terms, by LGBTQ, by perspective of thought, by nationality, we wanted to make sure that we made very clear what we see as the future of feminism and the future of the women’s movement, and that is not necessarily and should not be led by cisgender white women.
MP: We have a group of thirty leaders, and we made it a big point not to have a hierarchical model. It was about the fact that every voice matters and [creating] a space where that holds true. Yes, we are co-chairs, but a lot of what you are seeing today is the product of our group. And we are not making a profit from this.
BP: We have tried to make [the conference] affordable and accessible.
AC: This is not just a Kennedy School event. We welcome anyone and anybody, and come next year because this will be happening. We are working to get better every year, and this is just the beginning.
HPR: Any final thoughts?
BP: Our youngest member today was a year-and-a-half. We have high schoolers here and college students here. There is no age to these topics. If you were born a woman or identify yourself as female, you have been going through these challenges your entire life. “The Future is Female” panel shows how much leadership potential and bravery there is in the younger generation, and we try to give it a stage, and we would love to see more and more people jump in on this conversation at younger and younger ages: by the way, men included. We sold almost 400 tickets, and the great majority of them showed up.
AC: We knew that because in the first hour, we ran out of our 200 tote bags that we gave away for free.
Alicia Zhang and Sarah Shamoon contributed reporting.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ed Uthman
This interview has been edited and condensed.