At Male-Dominated SXSW, a Girls’ Lounge Aims to Facilitate the Power Manicure

Events focus on boosting confidence, though some fear reinforcing stereotypes

It's well known that women are the minority and are often underpaid in the tech industry. Even at massive industry events like South by Southwest Interactive, it can be challenging to find women in leadership roles beyond the public relations and communications fields.

The Ipsos Girls' Lounge is trying to change that by creating a safe haven for women at tech, media and advertising conferences, including SXSW. The group believes it can foster networking and deals between women and help empower them through pro-female programming facilitated by manicures, makeup and a bit of bubbly. This year, the Girls' Lounge made its SXSW debut in a downtown pop-up location outside the Austin Convention Center. It opened Friday and wraps up today.

"Guys do deals," Ipsos Girls' Lounge CEO Shelley Zalis said. "Girls create relationships. I think there's confidence in the pack. We're creating an environment where women feel comfortable, where real conversations happen and you have time to spend together."

The Ipsos Girls' Lounge first launched as a sleepover party at the CES in 2013. Zalis said she was sick of feeling intimidated at tech conferences and wanted to find a way for the women in the industry to band together. At SXSW, The Ipsos Girls' Lounge offers free foot reflexology and a beauty bar for hair, makeup and nails. (And, yes, most things are pink.) Zalis explained that the beauty aspects of the lounge are not about focusing on looks, but about helping women feel more confident about themselves.

"It's not about outer beauty, it's about inner beauty," Zalis said. "There is a reason it's called self-confidence. It's not about what others think; it's about how you feel."

SXSW attendee Rachel Oakerman said the lounge's activities do seem a little stereotypical, but she herself likes doing these things. And, if the Ipsos Girls' Lounge is successful at creating a healthy environment to network, Oakerman says, she sees nothing wrong with the approach. It's far worse to suggest that women can't want to look beautiful and have a powerful career, she added.

"Why can't it be both?" said Oakerman, a production administrator at Warner Bros. Television. "We want to get our hair and nails done and socialize with people in our industry."

Ashley Waxman, who runs communications for API and website infrastructure development startup Runscope, agreed with Oakerman's sentiment. To speak out against any group trying to foster women's careers feels too judgemental, she commented.

"If it's portrayed that [these activities] are all that women want, then it could be bad, but I don't want to knock women for wanting to get their hair and nails done," Waxman said.

However, one woman in the public relations industry who asked to remain anonymous, disagreed. She said she would rather see SXSW activations that could appeal to all types of women, instead of focusing on stereotypically feminine pastimes.

"In a space where we're trying to treat women as equals, I don't think it's right," she commented.

But outside of the Ipsos Girls' Lounge, women-focused events and initiatives have been few and far between. There are a handful of panels—including a keynote speech by Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, CEO of luxury retailer Alfa Intl., and another panel titled Get a Seat in the C-Suite: Fostering Women Leaders—but not many brands are activating this year with a pro-women focus. Of those that are providing activities or those who have famously done so in the past, the majority are working with The Girls' Lounge. 

It's worth noting that not all the experiences at the Ipsos Girls' Lounge are uber-feminine. Influencers like Talk Stoop host Cat Greenleaf were on hand to talk about their experiences. Brands like Dove, Toms and AOL, as well as companies like United Talent Agency (UTA), Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Upfront Ventures led discussions about issues facing women today. AOL Makers also were on hand to capture stories of inspirational women on video, and brought one of its Makers, the founder of Latina Magazine Christy Haubegger, to help lead the conversation.  

"Our goal is to be the largest collection of women's stories who are daring to redefine the rules," and lifestyle brands president Maureen Sullivan said. "There are so many of those individuals at SXSW. This is really an amazing opportunity to partner with the Girls Lounge and Shelley."

And, if you don't want to get a manicure or your makeup done, you don't have to. Women can just come to the space to relax. The SXSW attendee who asked to remain anonymous admitted she was likely to go to the lounge, but she still felt more work needed to be done that highlighted what women have done in order to inspire future generations instead of reinforcing stereotypes. 

"I'll probably go get my nails done at The Girls' Lounge," she said, "but I think we need to build upon amazing networking events that highlight what women can do."