Yes, I Can Walk in These

That’s What She Said… In Davos



The WEF at Davos, most know it stands for World Economic Forum, might as well have been referenced as Women’s Echo Forum this year. Despite the rather disconcerting notion that women only accounted for 17 percent of the delegates at the conference, those who did attend certainly made sure their voices were heard; in fact, women accounted for more than a third of the delegate social media activity at Davos. A gathering of highly intelligent women feeling the need and responsibility to share advice and insight, well, that  just might drive more women to attend WEF next year.

A prime  example of how women’s voices reverberated beyond their representation was the panel discussion pictured above, “Women in Economic Decision-making,” moderated by Herminia Ibarra, Cora chaired professor of leadership and learning and professor of organizational behaviour, INSEAD. The panelists included: Christine Lagarde, managing director, International Monetary Fund (IMF); Drew Gilpin Faust, president, Harvard University; Viviane Reding, vice president and commissioner, Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, European Commission; Lubna S. Olayan, deputy chairperson and chief executive officer, Olayan Financing Company, Saudi Arabia; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer and member of the board, Facebook; and Kevin Kelly, chief executive officer, Heidrick & Struggles.

In the spirit of further reverberation, here’s some of the most memorable moments of what “she” said…

Drew Gilpin Faust – When she got the job, she said she didn’t want to be known as the first woman president of Harvard, but rather as THE president of Harvard. However, when she received feedback from students, parents, etc. who were inspired by her being a women in that role, she soon came to appreciate the responsibility she has as the first woman president of the university. On the subject of women in the media, she added that we need to hold media accountable for how women are portrayed in media.

Christine Legarde – In speaking about being one of the only women associates in her law firm years ago, she recounted how she bucked the trend of working long hours in the office, opting to take Wednesday afternoons off to be with her kids. She still got her work done and logged the necessary billable hours, but she said rather than conforming, “We have to dare the difference.”

Viviane Reding – “I don’t like quotas, but I like what they do.” She noted that, “In 30 years plus in this business, I never saw such a fight” as when she imposed quotas for women on boards in Europe. She made the point to write into the law,  that if presented with two candidates with equal competence, one male and one female, corporate boards must chose the woman –  she said it is about equality, not favoritism and spoke about the need for role models and champions who are both women and men to give women a chance. She also noted that the law has a time limit and was intended just to break through the glass ceiling – “Sometimes you need political leadership in order to change the business world.”

Lubna S. Olayan – “We need CEOs to believe in the importance of having women in leadership roles – it can’t just be lip service.”

Sheryl Sandberg – Addressing the need to talk about gender stereotypes, she referenced T-shirts for one-year-olds that label kids, “smart like daddy” or “pretty like mommy” – “I would love to say that was 1951, but it was last year,” she noted. “As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those T-shirts.” Sandberg explained that those gender stereotypes play out in the work place as managers evaluate women citing things she’s heard about other women: “She’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,” or: “She’s a bit aggressive,” noting, “They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender stereotypes.” On their role in society, Sandberg added, “Women still have two jobs in the most developed countries around the world; men have one.” She added, “From the moment they leave school, the messages for women are different: “Don’t you want to have kids one day?” While working on her book, she says she looked at TV and movies to find a female character with kids and a job that is happy, but she couldn’t find one. She said she talks about these stereotypes and expectations very openly in her role as a manager and thinks companies need to do the same. She noted that HR/legal guidelines have told us not to ask if a woman is planning to have kids, etc. Sandberg’s point is that we can’t address the challenges women face at that critical mid-career level if we don’t talk about them.

Yes, Sandberg is right… we can’t address the challenges women face if we don’t talk about them and, as such, I’m confident that’s why the women at Davos felt the necessity to reach and reverberate beyond their 17 percent representation. I, for one, am thankful they did and also hopeful that next year at Davos, there will be even more voices in the global chorus.

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America and U.S. Western Region.

Image by World Economic Forum/Michael Wuertenberg.

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