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On Thursday and Friday, I had a media pass for Macquarie University’s annual Women, work and management conference. About two hundred women from all corners of Australia and all sorts of industries – transport, emergency services, banking – turned up to network and listen to speakers talk about what it is to be a woman in a managerial role. It was an experience, all right! I spent a lot of time wandering about under chandeliers and wondering what precisely I was doing there. I’ve got pages of notes – too much for a blog post! – so I’m going to tell you about a couple of my favourite speakers, and what I got out of it overall.

Andrea Culligan, the Managing Director/CEO at Unimail, stopped everyone in their tracks. A Canadian by birth, she came to Australia at 19 with 300 bucks in her pocket. She was starting a new life after drinking and drugs, and having been bullied so much at school that she was hospitalised several times. After moving around Australia and working at various jobs, she signed up for a business partnership, only to be abandoned by the other partner. She was left running her company by herself at the age of 23. And then the Internet crash happened. She’s worked incredibly hard and was named the Telstra NSW Young Businesswoman of the Year in 2009. She was charming, disarming, and beautifully honest. I believed her when she said that ‘status means nothing,’ because here was a woman who had worked incredibly hard and grabbed every opportunity she could, loved passion in other people, and really didn’t care about the surface of things. I’ll be looking forward to following the rest of her career.

Former Australian of the Year Dr Fiona Wood is best known for patenting spray-on skin for burns victims, and she’s a most dedicated doctor – she had to rush off before the end of her timeslot in order to see a patient. She started by telling us about her mother’s struggles to get Fiona into a good school, and her father’s coalmining work in Yorkshire, which taught her that there is no substitute for hard work. Fiona gave some pretty solid career advice: have a level of realism and play to your strengths, but don’t flog yourself into the ground either. The thing that stood out for me about her talk was something I’ll get into a bit more later on, namely a focus on the “massive pyramid behind them” anyone needs to achieve. Fiona constantly acknowledged the importance of her colleagues and family in her life, a refreshingly communal approach. There were anecdotes about things like how her husband brought the kids in – they have six! – so that she could breastfeed them while she was on call. A few quotes from my notes: her mother’s advice: ‘you grasp the nettle with both hands, Fiona, and you don’t let it go;’ ‘and I know that what is at the core of my being is that I should do the absolute best I can;’ ‘this is never as good as it gets, there is always another place to go;’ ‘it is a privilege to alter people’s lives;’ ‘everyone has a gift to give, and if they do not share it, it is worthless;’ ‘keep something of the best of you for those who mean most to you’. A very quotable lady!

All up, throughout the conference, there was a lot of counteracting of dominant messaging directed at women. Margy Osmond, Chief Executive of the Australian National Retailers Association, told her audience not to hold out for a hero, because the only person one can rely on is oneself, and that leadership is about the depth of humanity you bring. There was much about how women are socialised to focus on our flaws and be modest at the expense of our careers.

But there was also a lot of essentialism about the way women function – you know, the usual about being empathic multitaskers – which undercut the expansive nature of what could have been here. When there wasn’t essentialism, there was a kind of privileged individualism that made me grit my teeth. We were told that you can achieve anything you set your mind to if you put in enough effort, that it’s only you holding you back. This messaging is nothing new, of course. But it was frustrating to see the real systemic problems women (some more than others!) face so flippantly pushed aside by so many speakers. It should have been the kind of environment where we could say, hey, these are problems that society needs to overcome, and the responsibility shouldn’t be placed on we who have faced the brunt of it; we’re all here together, so let’s figure out how to start that shift as a team.

It was wonderful to be in a room with a group of amazing women, many of whom are isolated in male-dominated work environments, who were coming together and delighting in each others’ company. I couldn’t help but notice that the room we were in was a ballroom in a swanky hotel, however, and their companies had paid $2300 to send them there. Meanwhile, sitting up the back of the room, the blogger/journo/PR types were talking about bus routes and I was worrying about the pressure on the catering staff. I mean, I asked the concierge where the nearest mailbox was and he insisted on walking me to it when I refused his offer to post my mail for me. What was being paid for wasn’t just the chance to meet up, it was the chance to be served. And what of the women doing the serving? I’m wondering what happens for the vast majority of working women who weren’t so fortunate so as to have been flown to Sydney.

I like the conversation Mac Uni is trying to have, but, well, it could be so much more. We can talk about women in management, but what about the women they’re managing? What about the women who’ve been denied those managerial positions because employers don’t think mothers make good workers? What about the small women-run businesses which don’t have the budget to head to conferences like this one? I’d love to see some of those big companies put the kind of money they’re putting into conference fees into their women workers, for real. What if some of those hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the conference had been used by those companies to employ another woman worker, or to set up childcare, or in anti-sexual harassment programs?

In any conversation about women engaging in paid work, whether at this conference or elsewhere, we need to have in depth discussions about how to boost women. If we keep settling for blaming individuals and pop psychology, we’re not being honest about the whole picture.