When powerful women meet: sexism or smart move

October 2, 2007, 7:18 PM UTC

Coming to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Dana Point, Calif., this week, I have to admit I had somewhat mixed feelings. On one hand, just being invited — I’m here to moderate a panel on (what else?) Gen Y — is amazing. Just look at the list of former attendees: Oprah, Billie Jean King, Queen Noor, not to mention a who’s who of Fortune 500 CEOs. On the other, though, is the matter of what events like this, and the lists that accompany them — in this case, the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business — actually convey. For instance, one argument against comparable lists for minorities is of course that not many people want to be congratulated for succeeding despite being a minority. And some contend that being on a list of important minorities, as opposed to a list of just plain important people, can seem to say just that. Couldn’t one say the same about women’s lists and the like?

Maybe. Especially as Gen Yers, at least anecdotally, become increasingly gender-blind. But after having been here for a day, I think I’m going to stick with the amazing feeling. And not just because I’ve been starstruck (though I have been) or inspired (though I’ve been that, too). But because I was chatting with a very senior woman from one of the world’s largest corporations about my mixed feelings last night, and without a moment’s hesitation, she told me I was missing the point. As young girls, she said, we have our girlfriends. As college kids, maybe it’s our sorority sisters. But what do you have when you’re head of a global corporation? The corporate ranks aren’t exactly teeming with potential BFFs of the same level. So the creation and reinforcement of that support network happens through events like this summit.

Will there always need to be a women’s list as well? Maybe not. Maybe the day will come when a list of the most powerful people in business will be all that’s necessary because it’ll include — naturally, without quotas or lobbying — just as many women as men. But watching these women hug, catch up, and talk shop last night, I can’t imagine the summit going anywhere. As another exec put it, discussing life at the top: The men have golf with their buddies, and we have this — with our girlfriends.

What about you? Does this all make sense, or is this kind of women’s programming outdated or worse?