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26 October 2009

“Men love war and women love warriors”…and other dead clichés

“Men love war and women love warriors,” quoted Gassan Salamé, Professor of International Relations at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in France at last week’s Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society.  Needless to say, this got QUITE a reaction from the audience; of course the reading of the quote was intentionally provocative – Salamé was illustrating how such clichés have lost their meaning.  In fact, much of this year’s Forum focused on the need to completely rethink our most basic societal institutions: government, healthcare, schools, and – of course – business in order not only to thrive, but to survive.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has been has been a corporate partner of the Forum since its inception in 2005.  This “Davos for Women” was astonishing for a first-timer like myself.  I found it fitting that the Forum takes place in Deauville, a seaside town in the Normandy region of France.  Apart from being my personal favourite place in Europe, Normandy is a rather poignant location for a women’s business conference.  In 1944, hundreds of thousands of men landed on its beaches, a feat that would eventually help end World War II.  An ancillary effect of this was that back in the allies’ homelands, MILLIONS of women went to work outside the home for the first time ever to support the war effort and fill vacant jobs.  In America alone, “Rosie the Riveter” increased the number of working women to about 20 million.

And here I was in Normandy, seeing the legacy of that string of events…six decades later.

To give you an idea of the scope of the conference, I have to share how it FELT.  Imagine being in the midst of one thousand (mostly) female leaders of every age and race, from 70 countries.  Imagine women dressed in suits, head scarves, and boldly coloured African robes.  Imagine hearing women’s voices – French and English (spoken in a melodic range of accents).  Imagine the pervasive sillage (an apt French word, roughly meaning “the scent trail left by perfume”).  Imagine being in the enormous Centre International de Deauville, where typical French elegance suffused every last detail, from the omnipresent purple logo, to the young women staffing the event, in matching black tailored dresses, pressed ribbons circling their waists.  Being surrounded by this many diverse women at a business event was inspiring…and comfortable.

Around the corner from the plenary room, participants could peruse the “Discovery Hall.”  Among the places to visit in this area: the Cartier’s Women’s Initiative Awards corner; the Capgemini Brainstorming Corner (containing a huge mural with key phrases and drawings summarizing each session as they happened); Elle magazine’s “Women for Education” wall; L’Oréal’s Writer’s Corner, featuring an exhibit on “The Origins of Beauty.”  My colleagues from PwC’s Paris office were hosting our own “Sustainability Club,” calculating and offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions of participants’ travel to finance an electricity and heat biomass project in Karnataka, India.  As my colleagues described their daily work in PwC’s Sustainability practice, I was struck by how the competencies of business have changed so dramatically, even during my ten years in the work force. 

More than anything, the conference woke me up to new information and ideas that inspired me, and I’d like to share some of those with you.


What does this have to do with business?  Well, a lot, it turns out. Janine Benyus, President of the Biomimicry Institute in the U.S. explained that scientists are now working with architects and businesses to construct environment-friendly products and office buildings.  Benyus stressed that we are living in a time when “all of our certainties have crumbled,” and spoke of the “quieting of human arrogance” (what a beautiful and resonant phrase for 2009).  She urged us to look outside our species for the solutions to our social, environmental and business problems, citing how organisms have used CO2 as a building block, rather than a poison; how ocean creatures transform salt-water into fresh water.  In other words, she urged us to look to the natural world for innovation.  Benyus countered the business-as-usual assumption that short-term profit is paramount, explaining that the definition of success in the natural world is about ensuring life 10,000 years from now.  She also exploded the myth that the natural world is a purely competitive place, describing two coral reefs that had been devastated by a tsunami – the one that regenerated itself was an ecosystem that thrived on cooperation, which led to its resilience (when I shared this with my husband, he told me that economists have also looked at ecosystems to understand financial markets and how they might work better.  Who knew?  Not me!)  Indeed, business can learn innovation from the natural world.

PwC Partner Sonja Barendregt-Roojers spoke at a roundtable panel on Business Innovation, expressing the need to reward innovation and create an environment where staff feels comfortable bringing creative ideas to the table.  Another panellist pointed out that certain companies allow 30% of their employees’ time to be dedicated purely to brainstorming activities – getting outside the office, away from daily monotonous tasks – to simply reflect.  I asked myself whether I bring that kind of creative energy to my own work; do you?


The Millennial generation values their contribution to society as much as (often more than) their paychecks.  Anne Lauvergeon, Chair of AREVA, France pointed out that young employees and recruits want to see the “human project” at the centre of things…including business; they want to be useful in a broad sense.  To engage future leaders, businesses must adapt.  While recognizing the economic crisis as critical, she pointed out that it’s only one of many crises we’re facing today.  She asked us to consider the climate change crisis.  The demographic crisis.  The food and water crisis.  The energy crisis.  The healthcare crisis.  The poverty crisis.  The education crisis. 

You could’ve heard a pin drop as we all took a proverbial step back to reflect on the profundity of this statement.  After all, what will business be without educated people?  Without healthy people?  Without…people, full stop?

Lauvergeon noted that the world has changed dramatically, but that institutions have not.  I can’t help but mention that she cited life-expectancy as an example – raising her eyebrow as she noted that “the average marriage lasted ten years; now it lasts fifty years.”  Humour aside, I couldn’t help but think how accurately this describes the business world – an inflexible and in many ways arcane institution largely built by men, for men, assuming a wife at home to handle the domestic work.  We all know that this in no way reflects the reality of our lives today, with families often comprised of single parents or dual-earners.  Lauvergeon urged us to go back to the basics, revolutionizing our institutions and jettisoning the idea that short-term profits are paramount.  “Women are not better,” she said, “but they have a better sense for long-term things.” 


If evidence shows that companies with diversity in top management are around 30% more profitable, why do we still only have a handful of women in management? 

According to one speaker, the reason is that even male leaders intellectually understand the business case, they haven’t internalized it (a friend of mine often says “it’s a long way from head to heart”).  The argument goes that because top male leaders continue to surround themselves with people that look, act, and think like them, they’ve never actually experienced the power of diversity in action, even while knowing that diverse teams outperform homogonous ones.  What's encouraging, according to the panellists, is that leaders (both men and women) often become staunch supporters of diversity when they see the "magic" of it on teams.


The way forward is cooperation – collective movement fostered by personal action and sharing success stories.  Eleanor Roosevelt began holding press conferences where only female journalists were allowed, thus forcing newspapers to hire women reporters.  We may not all have the executive authority of Roosevelt, but as Karen Kornbluh, U.S. Ambassador to the OECD reminded us, we all have a personal responsibility to make ourselves into agents of change.  “When we turn on our laptop,” she said, “we’re as powerful as anybody.”  Personally, I do see my female friends and colleagues making use of new tools – such as social media and educational podcasts – to help themselves and others, to network and share information faster than ever before.  I try to do my part by telling anyone and everyone who will listen to me about the business case for diversity; I also share the REAL numbers regarding women leaders around the world in business, politics and other positions of power (I find that very few individuals know that although women make up half the world's workforce, we make up only a tiny percentage of leadership – people assume that’s a thing of the past; many also aren't aware of the significant business advantages that diversity brings to the table).  I ask my friends about their own experiences with diversity in their professions as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and journalists (and I’d love to hear from you about the big and little things you do, or are doing around empowering and educating women and men to use diversity as a change agent.)
“Leadership is not a position,” said Ndidi Nwuneli, Founder and Director of LEAP Africa, “leadership is an action.”  She also shared a beautiful and pertinent African proverb: “Go fast, go alone; go far, go with others.”

In her opening remarks, Forum founder Aude Zieseniss de Thuin stated that it is our personal responsibility to create change; that the financial crisis brings a new opportunity to build a “new deal” between generations and countries to create a “more balanced and respectful world.”  She said that women will be the “pillars” of such renewal. 

Over the course of the conference many speakers were asked what women (or said differently, a “feminine leadership style”) bring to the table.  The answers varied: Results.  A long-term view.  Diversity of thought.  Less selfishness.  A pragmatic approach to business.  More persistence.  More courage.  Better cooperation.  Long-term planning.

These seem to me the very attributes that will address the issues – financial and other – that were at the heart of this conference. 

My Dutch colleague turned to me after a one of the sessions and said, “Isn’t it great to get inspired once in a while?”

Yes.  Yes, it is indeed great to get inspired once in a while. 

à bientôt,


Deauville Capgem Mural2

Deauville Capgem Mural3

Deauville Capgem Mural

Deauville Elle Education2

Deauville Elle Education



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