Illustration by Joe Anderson

Hundreds of prominent leaders in government, business, and fashion gathered in Paris this spring for Barnard’s Global Symposium, an event convened each year by the College to provide a forum for discussion of critical issues facing women, and an opportunity for professors to extend the reach of their research. It also offered Barnard students a chance to mentor a group of international students in leadership and negotiating skills.

“Our intention in establishing the symposia series in 2009 was to create conversations that have power and impact, and address women’s issues around the world,” President Debora Spar said in her opening remarks. The symposium has met in Beijing, Dubai, São Paulo, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and New York; this year’s event was the first held in Europe.

The symposium offered several lively sessions that delved into gender equality in government and legislation for parenting leave in different countries, with prominent speakers such as the deputy mayor of Paris and Pamela Golbin ’92, the chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

The event provided an opportunity for professors to collaborate with colleagues in the region. Six faculty members from several departments, including Africana studies, French, English, and dance, were named symposium fellows. Several of the fellows held a working session with local academics, artists, curators, cultural workers, and community activists to discuss a collaboration regarding the links between the African diasporic cultures and communities in Harlem and Paris.

Professor Tina Campt, who is the director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, says the session gave her “the opportunity to connect with other people who do what I do. It means I get out of my comfort zone.” The center hosted a discussion between esteemed writer and former Columbia faculty member Maryse Condé and renowned Franco-Martinican novelist and filmmaker Fabienne Kanor on the rich tradition of artists and writers moving between the French-speaking Caribbean and France, which took place at Reid Hall, Columbia’s Global Center in Europe.

Colleen Thomas-Young, an associate professor of professional practice in dance, shared her academic research with French colleagues through workshops and lectures. She investigates international dance improvisation and studies how dance is informed by gender and history. As director of the Barnard Dance in Paris program, she has brought more than 40 Barnard and Columbia students to France during the summer to take classes and perform original works.

Barnard’s student fellows developed and facilitated, with guidance from the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, workshops for high school girls, held first on the Barnard campus prior to the symposium and then in Paris, where girls from international schools made zines—short magazines—about subjects they were passionate about. Topics included body image, the American presidential election, and the gender pay gap.

“My leadership capacities were put to the test,” Melina Dunham ’18 said, “and I learned a lot about myself as a young woman soon entering the work force.” Tina Shan ’18 said the workshop posed the question, “‘What should women’s leadership look like?’ We are talking about redefining the word itself. To lead is not to compete or oppress, but to lift each other up.”

One conference panel addressed the way in which legislation for equal gender representation has mandated quotas for boards for nonprofit institutions and corporations in countries such as France and Italy. Réjane Sénac, who is the president of the Parity Commission of the High Council for Gender Equality, an advisory group run by the French prime minister’s office, said that in patriarchal countries with ingrained cultural norms, such legislation is the only way to jump-start the path to equality.

Deputy Mayor of Paris Célia Blauel, the keynote speaker, reaffirmed the need for legislation to spark change. Initially a critic of France’s gender parity law, which included stipulations on equal representation in politics, Blauel said that she “would not be here today if it weren’t for this law.” She urged women to press their case for gender parity.

Legislation pertaining to work and home life was a key focus of a third panel. Willem Adema, a senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group devoted to helping governments with economic and social issues, pointed out that Japan and South Korea have generous paternity leaves, but that the time is rarely taken because men fear the impact such leaves will have on their careers.

During a panel on gender and the fashion industry, panelists discussed how confidence in one’s appearance creates a greater sense of strength. Golbin pointed out that “women who designed for women—Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin—created the fashion world we know today.” She began her fashion career at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where she has worked for more than 20 years; she is one of very few museum curators in Paris not born in France. The museum is currently showing “Fashion Forward: Three Centuries of Fashion,” organized by Golbin, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of its fashion collection, capturing the history of clothing all the way from a court dress made in 1778 to a hooded sheath from designer Azzedine Alaïa.

Golbin found the symposium to be an eye-opening experience. “Women’s issues are not so overtly spoken about here in France,” she says. “It was a wonderful opportunity to see the upcoming generation of women interested and proactive about their role in the business realm.”

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