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Prominent female leaders speak at UNL women's conference
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Prominent female leaders speak at UNL women's conference

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Michele Coleman Mayes has experienced bias in the workplace firsthand, but her impressive résumé proves she hasn't let that get in her way.

Mayes, who is vice president and general counsel for the New York Public Library, was in Lincoln on Friday to speak at the University of Nebraska's "Women Lead 2020" conference at Innovation Campus. The event, co-hosted by the UNL College of Law and College of Business, aims to empower women and encourage their advancement in professional settings.

Mayes previously served as general counsel for Allstate Insurance and Colgate-Palmolive, and she used her speech Friday — titled "You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Bias" — to outline her experience and knowledge on different types of bias.

She said that everyone has biases, and they vary widely. The only way to overcome those biases, she said, is for all people involved to have a positive mindset.

Much of Mayes’ speech was based a study she worked on, which surveyed lawyers at major firms and found that women, particularly women of color, experience adverse effects of bias in the workplace when it comes to hiring, promotions and compensation.

Mayes and her colleagues then nailed down a few specific areas of bias and examined ways to combat them.

One common instance of bias, Mayes said, is women and people of color being forced to prove their ability to do their job more fully than white men. She said women can combat that by giving employers repeated quantifiable evidence that they perform at the level that is expected.

Another key area of bias, Mayes said, presents itself when women choose to have children. She said that can lead to women being overlooked for advancement, and that often accommodations are not adequate to allow for a healthy balance between work and home.

"It is one of the toughest forms of bias to overcome," she said.

Mayes also spoke about intersectionality, which she described as overlapping systems of discrimination, such as sexism and racism. She said that while it is important to work together on these issues, occasionally people of relative privilege can hurt others when working for equality. For instance, white women should not act as though they are “saviors” for minorities, she said, nor should they be blind to issues that affect minorities to a greater degree. Rather, she said women of color are looking for support and collaboration.

Mayes closed her speech with a challenge to the audience.

"Will you join me as I stumble upwards?" she asked. "Because none of us are perfect. We all have these biases coursing through our brains every second of the day.”

Molly Brummond, an assistant dean with the UNL College of Law, said the biennial conference was the second event of its kind at UNL, and the first to include the College of Business. She said the colleges working together on an event such as this was a natural fit.

“So many women in business face the same challenges,” Brummond said.

She said the conference sold out, with 325 attendees.

Other speakers included Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America and former executive vice president at Walmart. Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Stephanie Stacy, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and former U.S Attorney for Nebraska Deb Gilg also spoke.

Former Washington Governor Christine Gregorie and Microsoft executive DeLee Shoemaker spoke through a videochat, as travel concerns surrounding COVID-19 kept them in their home state. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was also slated to speak, but could not due to her city's COVID-19 response.

The colleges plan to host another event in two years, Brummond said, and she's excited to see how the conference grows in the future.

“I hope we can continue to bring together people who are interested in growing their ability to lead, and their ability to help women lead,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or nmcconnell@journalstar.com.

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