A conference attendee makes her pledge at the 2012 Leadership Summit for Women.

It’s rare to see an all-woman panel filling the seats in the City of Hamilton’s council chambers, but that was the sight on Saturday at the Leadership Summit for Women.

About 200 people attended the conference, which was held this year at City Hall rather than on McMaster’s campus, where attendees convened last year.

“We wanted to extend the discussion to the community,” said Alicia Ali, conference organizer and former VP (education) of the MSU.

A lineup of women leaders took to the mic to share their experiences and to facilitate discussion on how women can advance themselves professionally.

Ann Decter, director of advocacy and public policy at Hamilton’s YWCA, opened the discussion by pointing to a reversal of the ‘gender gap’ in higher education.

In 1971, women comprised 32 per cent of Canadian university graduates aged 25 to 29, and by 2006, the number had shot up to 60 per cent.

“Boys are not falling behind or even declining in education - they are improving,” she added. “But they are outpaced by girls. This is not cause for hysteria.”

The morning panel had a strong McMaster presence, and included Theresa Burns, head coach of McMaster’s women’s basketball team, Susan Fast, director of McMaster’s graduate program in gender studies and feminist research, Dawn Martin-Hill, co-founder of the Indigenous Studies program, and Anisa Mirza, former president of the McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice organization.

While the overall mood of the conference was optimistic, concerns were raised about the challenges women still face in Hamilton and beyond.

“I want to see female athletes have a voice,” said coach Burns, who said the women she coaches often get less media coverage than their fellow male athletes.

Fast, who served as panel moderator, pointed out that only 20 per cent of female faculty at Canadian universities are at the rank of full professor.

Evelyn Myrie, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, spoke highly of the diversity among women leaders in Hamilton, but also said they are underrepresented in the city's leadership.

“Hamilton is ascribed as a male-dominated town in all areas except in the social service sector, where at some level there are [more women in leadership]. We do have a long way to go,” said Myrie.

The conference generated significant buzz on Twitter, with several community members weighing in on the discussion.

Attendees were asked to share their pledge “to help more women become leaders in their community,” and many took to Twitter with the hashtag #LSW2012.

MSU president Siobhan Stewart, who was on the conference's planning committee gave the closing statement.

“In my work, it’s often noted that I’m the first black female president of the MSU. My hope is that we will one day live in a world where that would not be notable,” she said.

McMaster alumni on the planning committee include former MSU president Mary Koziol and the Student Success Centre's social media manager, Kathy Woo.

The same day, young professionals met to talk downtown renewal at the Hamilton HiveX conference one block away at the Sheraton Hotel. Both HiveX and the Leadership Summit for Women are in their second annual run.

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