When Phyllis James graduated from Harvard Law School in 1977, there were few female lawyers working in top-tier law firms.
And there were even fewer female partners in those firms. Out of 300 attorneys at the San Francisco law office where she worked, only two partners were women.
Within eight years, James, executive vice president and chief diversity officer at MGM Resorts International, broke through that glass ceiling, becoming the first African-American partner at her office.
It was a prestigious accomplishment, one made even more impressive knowing that, while she had her share of mentors along the way, most of them were men. James didn’t really have a network of women she could look up to and model herself after, accomplished, professional women who would, if nothing else, show James a purposeful way to succeed.
That is one reason James is so passionate about the Women’s Leadership Conference, a symposium that takes place Aug. 8 and 9 at MGM Grand.
Hundreds of women — and men, too — from across the country are expected to attend two days of inspirational seminars, professional workshops and classes devoted to showing women how to succeed in business.
The conference, formerly called Women of Color, is in its seventh year. During that time, it has become a personal project for James.
“At the time I was coming along, there were no conferences like this,” says James, who moved to Las Vegas in 2002. “To me, from a personal standpoint, it’s great to be able to offer something to younger women coming along today that was not available to me.”
The conference will touch on every aspect women encounter in the workforce, from wage inequities to stereotypes. There will be discussions about how to balance work and family, but also advice on how to ask for a raise. It is designed to appeal to women at all levels of professional development, says Maria Gatti, director of diversity relations at MGM Resorts.
Despite advancements, women continue to face special challenges in the workplace, says Sylvia Lazos, an attorney and the Justice Myron Leavitt professor at Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The best way to overcome them? Educate yourself. Know the challenges so you can prepare yourself to make reasoned choices, she adds.
A women’s conference is a good way to start that education process.
“It’s a place to connect, network. A place to learn about these issues,” Lazos says. “It’s a good place to learn the science of being a woman in a workplace.”
In 2011, women made up 60 percent of college graduates, James says. But women represent only a small percentage of top management at Fortune 500 companies. Three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. And women in white-collar management jobs are paid 81 cents to every $1 earned by a man in a comparable job.
Women have come a long way in the workforce, especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It included Title VII, which made it illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace. But those statistics, James says, are symbolic of the fact that women still have a long way to go before achieving equality in the workforce.
“We know that women still don’t have full gender equality with men in the leading power roles in society,” James says. “That’s just a true fact. There are lots of historical reasons for that.”
Conference organizers are looking at those reasons and trying to provide ways to address them.
One way to help women advance in work is to introduce them to other, successful women. The conference will have a lot of networking time built into it, giving attendees the chance to meet people who might serve as mentors or even mentees.
LaDawndre Stinson attended her first Women’s Leadership Conference when she worked at Hilton Worldwide in 2007. This year will be her fifth conference. Now, she is director of human resources for MGM Resorts International.
She credits the conference for helping her to develop and grow as an HR professional. She came to work for MGM in 2011 and has relied on the support system she built through the symposium.
“That first year, I think that the networking ... was really big,” says Stinson, who attended with two colleagues. “I think the content was important as well. I think the motivational speaker got everyone pumped up. It really made you feel like you could accomplish anything.”
Christine Cashen, a motivational speaker from Dallas, hopes to impart that same feeling into the conference this year. She was the opening keynote speaker last year and talked about how to achieve success with the tools you already possess. Her message next month will be to “take care of yourself.”
Women, she says, are the caregivers of the world. They often forget to take time for themselves, though. They neglect their own needs, which can lead to dissatisfaction.
Her message, she says, will give women permission to recharge.
“The conference is not just for women, men can come, too,” Cashen says. “It’s not a men-bashing thing at all. It’s more about saying, ‘Sister, I am with you, here’s what we can do to keep our sanity.’ Because we do a lot.”
Registration costs $350. For more information, visit mgmresorts.com/womensleadershipconference.
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.