SF group's motivating meetings help women succeed together 

A broken glass ceiling. Equal pay for equal work. Value given for what we bring to the table -- as workers, mothers and partners. Yes. A million articles have been written on these topics, and while small strides have been made, relatively little fundamental change has taken place.

Investors trust female-run companies less than male-run companies, and women's compensation still does not match that of male co-workers. More women are on corporate boards, but it is growth from a very small base.

Fortunately, another "women's movement" is taking place at whirlwind pace. It is taking place at the executive level and underground among small, supportive groups of women across the country. It's not defined by comparisons to men or the expectations of society.

It's a movement of intellectual growth, shared joy and camaraderie. In San Francisco, this movement is called Parlay House. A female-based "organization," it holds events solely to bring amazing women together to connect and grow.

To parlay literally means to transition from one thing to another. That is part of what we do. Parlay is also a play on the French parler, meaning "to speak." We do that, too. Parlay House is also a modern evolution of Victorian women's parlor gatherings.

Our group started when a small cadre of women recognized that we had reached a stage in our lives where our need for connection was no longer fulfilled by our children's friends' parents, business associates or the personal circles of our husbands (or exes).

We craved interaction with women whom we felt connected to and were inspired by, and who had something interesting to say. We felt the need to be part of something created by us and for us, with no agenda other than meeting amazing women and feeling energized.

First three, then 10, then 20 women came together to meet, talk and learn. Women were invited by other women who thought they would enjoy the experience. Twenty quickly grew to more than 120.

We have started to add content to our get-togethers as fodder for discussion and exploration -- guest speakers such as documentary filmmakers, poets, social activists, artists and Champagne experts.

No networking, business-building or solicitation happens.

No "anti-male sentiment, bitching or protesting" takes place. It's just a great and varied group of women gathering for the sake of companionship, expanded friendships, new ideas and exposure to something outside of our usual routines.

What is the difference between Parlay House and existing organizations? Our model is working because we do not have an agenda other than personal inspiration. We have no membership criteria other than self-selection and we have no formal structure.

We know we are benefiting from these experiences in our careers, relationships and communities, but measuring it on any level other than personal experience distracts from our mission to connect, learn and grow.

About half of our members show up for each event, and inevitably, some bring someone else. Women know which of their friends will be jazzed about joining us and will have something unique to bring to the table. If a guest doesn't click, she can never come back. And that is OK.

How sustainable are these models? Until there truly is equality in the workplace, home and political sphere, groups of women supporting other women will continue to be formed. As Madeleine Albright once said: "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Our membership is currently growing between 10 percent and 20 percent per month, and we will inevitably grow too large to be housed in members' homes.

While we currently have neither a permanent location nor dues, attendees contribute what they can. Since Parlay House's goal is personal extension rather than financial return, our members return again and again.

They come from The City, and they come from the 'burbs. Some even come when they happen to be in town from New York City or another distant city. But they keep coming.

In a world of exclusion, competition, sizing up and scaling down, we are just gathering for the sake of gathering. Parlay on, ladies. We're just getting started.

Anne Devereux spent the first half of her career running advertising agencies and raising her daughters in New York. She now lives in San Francisco and focuses on projects related to health, women's issues and social justice.

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Anne Devereux

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