Monday, January 28, 2013

Davos January 2013

As usual, the media missed the message from the Davos, Switzerland World Economic Forum – Women in Economic Decision-Making panel moderated by Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Leadership at INSEAD. ( Panelists included:

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF
Drew Gilpin Faust, President, Harvard University
Viviane Reding, Vice President and Commissioner, European Commission
Lubna S. Olayan, Deputy Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer, Olayan Financing Company
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board, Facebook
Kevin Kelly, Chief Executive Officer, Heidrick & Struggles

Laura D’Andrea Tyson (Rapporteur), Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley

As usual, the media trivialized the contributions of the speakers during the first 30 minutes until popular icon Sheryl Sandberg spoke and “slayed the gender stereotype dragon.”  I do concur with much that Sandberg said, but strongly disagree with the press reports alleging that the other speakers had nothing to contribute to the debate.  While I may challenge some of their points (i.e., whether quotas work or not), I believe we should listen to their arguments and understand their contributions and perspectives.  That is why I provide the link, above, to the original and complete panel session – because diverse views were expressed and should be heard.

Most interesting to me was the contribution of Lubna S. Olayan of Saudi Arabia, who is a leader in an Arab investment firm – an incredible accomplishment all by itself.  She pointed out the importance of women in leadership setting examples.  Both she and Sandberg stated that women need to take the media to task for perpetuating the stereotypes that women are just pretty faces or fostering limiting messages to us and to our children.

They concurred that the representation of women in the media is unrealistic. There is never a movie, article, or television show about a working woman with kids who is happy.  They’re all miserable and conflicted.

The media seldom reports what women in leadership have to stay on a subject – it’s much more likely they will speak about what she is wearing, how she looks, or her hair. This has been patently clear with role models like Hilary Clinton even though she is a superb example of how a woman succeeds at the top.

Olayan warned women, themselves, to stop playing to the media – they need to bring the focus back to the content, not the head-cover.  Women have to stay focused on what has to be done – not be distracted from our goals and objectives.

Sandberg was explicit about the need for a much more open dialog about gender. She pointed out that companies and women are prohibited by our legal structure and rules from talking honestly about family and having children, about gender stereotypes. In part, women in human resources and diversity training programs have to accept at least partial responsibility for those strictures. If we cannot hold a legitimate conversation about these subjects, we cannot address the stereotypes.  We verbally walk around them, ignore them, and thus allow them to persist.

The conversation that is not happening is that we deliver one message to women and an entirely different message to men. Sandberg cited the example of two t-shirts: one for boys, “I’m smart like Daddy” and the other for girls, “I’m pretty like Mommy” – products of Gymboree, now owned by Bain Capital, and with zero women on their corporate board. Inherently, we are treating women differently by avoiding the issues that do concern women and perhaps ought to concern men:

Don’t you want kids?
Are you sure?
Should you?
Are you “leaving the workplace before you leave?” as Sandberg said in earlier TED presentation.

Sandberg’s more complete thoughts on the subject of “leaning in” will be published in her forthcoming book, “to encourage women to aspire to and pursue leadership roles,” according to her publisher Knopf.  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead reflects on Ms. Sandberg’s own personal and professional experiences and discusses the latest research on equality in the workplace.

Sandberg and Olayan’s positions did contrast with that of Vivian Reding who believes strongly that progress for women in leadership depends upon the largess of corporate CEOs. “We need men to help us.”  That is the foundation of her proposal for quotas for boards of directors at companies in the European Commission.  Noteworthy is her reference to a database of “Global Board Ready Women” which now contains something like 8,000 names of qualified, experienced, women graduates of major global business schools.

The question that Reding did not ask or answer is this: “Why aren’t the 8,000 qualified, competent, experienced women graduates of major global business schools building their own companies, their own boards of directors, and advancing women to leadership in their own companies?  Why is the only solution women that can envision is that women be invited to the dance by men?”

Christine Lagarde spoke up a little more at the end of the panel concurring with the point that women need to “dare the difference and speak about it.” She argued, correctly, that yardsticks have been set by men before women entered the marketplace. Women persist in the belief that they have to use the same standards – not their own standards. “Women need to use the voice we have.  Yardsticks and stereotypes have to change.”

An interesting contribution from the audience came from Laura Liswood, Senior Advisor at Goldman Sachs, who agreed that the “double bind problem” persists in the face of an explosion of gender research.  Apparently, the research has persuaded only those in whose favor it has been written.  She directed her question to Kevin Kelly, CEO of Heidrick & Struggles: “What men think is happening and what women think is happening are worlds apart, as indicated by the Heidrick & Struggles surveys. How do we align those parallel universes?”

Kelly concurred that executives have a tendency to “tick the box.” He described the Noah’s Ark version of diversity: check the box with two of these and two of those. But, he argued, the more substantive challenge is how to make the board more effective.

Liswood has written three outstanding books, Serving Them Right (1990 on customer service), Women World Leaders (1996 - interviews with 19 women heads of state and heads of government), and The Loudest Duck  (2009 - a guide to achieving corporate leadership diversity).

Laura D’Andrea Tyson suggested that the body of gender equity research has finally reached a level sufficient to persuade businesses of the competitive advantages of equality.  Yet, if that were truly the case, we would not be discussing the perpetuation of stereotypes.

A very interesting contribution came from Soulaima Gourani of Denmark, founder of Global Dignity Girls.  She described her work organizing 700 young girl role models to tour her country, talking to young girls, and motivating them to get a top level education and consider business leadership roles, rather than simply dressing up for the boys. She said a motto of the group is “Don’t buy new breasts, buy books.”

This is the caliber of no nonsense, take no prisoners, kiss no frogs women of the next generation, for which we can all be incredibly grateful. They are taking their futures into their own hands and making the difference through their actions and their own decision.  The mental stereotypes not longer persist in their minds.  They are the true embodiment of diversity because they do not accept any presumption that they might be second class citizens.

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