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17 February 2010

The Turning Point



I hope some of you have had the chance to view the Gender Agenda Debate which took place in Davos and has been airing this month on CNBC.  If you haven’t caught it on television, please click here to view a short preview as well as the entire 48-minute debate (and yes – it’s definitely worth watching by yourself, with a coach, colleague, or client, with a company leader, with a class of students, with a networking group, or with your family).  Personally, I came away with a clear sense that we have reached a turning point when it comes to gender parity and corporate culture.


The debate is energetic, controversial, and abounds with practical insight and suggestions.  Our Global Chairman, Dennis Nally captured the essence of the day’s topic in his opening question:


“How do we get past the dialoguing and get to action that everybody can benefit from, to really progress this, so that we’re not here two years from now talking about the same topic?”


Denis Nally Gender Agenda Debate Photo Feb 2010


Arianna Huffington later made an apt analogy to describe the root problems that have plagued corporate efforts around gender parity:  


“It’s like the captain of the ship has said ‘we’re going in that direction,’ but the automatic pilot is set in a different direction.  How do we change that?...We can’t just pretend that we can keep going in the direction we’ve been going and achieve different results…we’re not going to.  We need to change some fundamental things.” 


Arianna Huffington Gender Agenda Debate Feb 2010

Below, I’ve summarized the key points from the debate, and picked out a few of my favorite discussion topics (and juiciest quotes).


Team One asserted that female talent must be accessed and liberated.  “It’s about communication, education, equal opportunities from a very young age,” said Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, “the key action companies could take would be encouraging women to return to the workforce after having a family.”  The team advocated the following:

  • The business case for gender parity must be created within your specific industry
  • Lead by example – there must be absolute alignment between talk and action
  • The basic processes of the company – hiring, appraisal, promotion – must take into account the need for gender parity
  • Create objectives around gender parity in your organization and measure them
  • Flexibility will only work if companies structure their promotion processes so that women are not penalized for taking time off

Team Two, led by Arianna Huffington, pointed out the role of company culture and social conditioning in preventing women from progressing.  “For a man to be called ruthless he has to be Joe McCarthy,” she said, “for a woman to be called ruthless, she just has to put someone on hold.”  The team shared the following insights:

  • Corporate culture produces stress and sickness that drive women away; we’ve created too many employees with heart attacks and ulcers in their 40s and 50s; this does not behoove a successful environment or culture
  • A sense of urgency is needed to bring accelerated action
  • Women have internalized feminine stereotypes. They are reluctant to be assertive and express ambition; we must educate women so that they’re not afraid to fail; there is no success without failure – it’s inevitable, it’s a part of taking risks
  • The rigidity of corporate career paths must be smashed to allow both sexes to succeed, and to reap the economic and innovation benefits of gender parity

Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola pointed out how important international experience is in our increasingly-globalized world for future leaders and asserted that women must have access to these opportunities.  He said:


“Mobility is a big issue – women don’t move as easily as men.  We had a European president that couldn’t move to the headquarters of our European operations, so she stayed where she was – we broke away the rigidity of the processes.  Old career paths are no longer valid if you want to get to a 50% ratio which is where we want to get to with our senior women in leadership.” 


Challenger Laura Tyson, Professor of Business at UC Berkeley, expanded on these points, alluding to research that shows women don’t offer themselves up for promotion or negotiate for higher compensation nearly to the extent that men do.  Nick Kristof, Columnist at the New York Times (and author of Half the Sky) underlined the gender stereotypes that women face in the workplace citing research that shows while men can appear to be competent, authoritative, and also nice, if women come across as competent and authoritative, it undermines the extent to which they’re perceived as nice.


Kristof also pointed out that the stage was designed (with high stools) in a manner that put the women (in skirts or dresses) at a disadvantage.  Indeed.  Try debating on international television, while also carefully maintaining your balance and posture to keep your modesty in tact (good thing women are also known for being excellent multi-taskers).  Here are a few more of the ideas, facts, and quotes that most resonated with me:




“My classmates at business school were all very talented,” said Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook.  “Fifteen years later, all the men are working full time and almost none of the women are.  The women left because they had two jobs and their husbands had one.  Research shows that when a man and woman are working full time, the woman does 3.5 times more housework and childcare than the man.  And these women also left because their husbands were making more money.  Due to choices they’d made, their husbands had higher earnings, so it made more economic sense for the women to step back.” (For more on this, see theglasshammer.com article Debating the Motherhood Penalty)




Arianna Huffington said: “We’re still running businesses as if we’re in the beginning of the twentieth century…the way we’ve been doing things has basically created an incredibly sleep-deprived, stressed population at the top that’s making a lot of wrong decisions.  Look at what the international economy has gone through.  If we had more people that were less stressed, got more sleep, and had more work life balance, we might have not been on the verge of a financial meltdown…leadership is ultimately about questioning conventional wisdom.  If you’re all going in the same direction and nobody says ‘wait a minute what are we doing here?’ [then disaster results]…that’s the kind of leadership we need, especially as we move into unchartered waters.”




Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault and Nissan, said: “I think we’re talking here about an environment where everybody agrees on equal opportunity and how we’re going to bring it.  And that’s not true.  There are a lot of areas in the world where it’s not obvious.  You go to Japan, to the Arab world, to areas where this basic assumption doesn’t exist…there are a lot of environments where people think you’re making this [argument for gender parity] because you’re a foreigner…or for your convictions rather than because there’s a business case.” 




Sir Martin Sorrell told the audience that he polled the senior women of WPP and found they did not want an indiscriminate quota instituted, however admitted that if progress is too slow that may be the way to go.  Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola stressed that it is only through cultural change and not quotas that companies will achieve sustainability – by getting enough women into leadership roles now to ensure companies are better matching their expectations when the half billion new women come into the workforce in the next 10-20 years.  Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook was quite clear about how she feels:  “I never want to get a job because they have to have me; I want to get a job because I earn it.” 


Carolos Ghosn had a different take on the issue.  He pointed out that you can institute recruitment and succession quotas that don’t compromise quality – you simply refuse to close a recruitment remit or succession plan until there are equal numbers of men and women on the list – not because you’ve lowered the bar, but because you insist on searching out qualified internal candidates of both genders – or look externally if necessary.  “It takes more time,” agreed Laura Tyson, “but you can find them…and everyone benefits.”




Throughout the debate, a host of studies, polls, and reports were referenced…here are a few highlights:

  • 85% of consumer purchases are made or influenced by women, yet only 3% of advertising directors are women
  • 79% of men and 87% of women believe in the benefits of gender parity, while only 59% of men and 19% of women believe their company is actually doing something about it
  • 3 times as many women as men have taken a career ‘detour’ for their family
  • The more educated and financially independent a woman is, the more likely she is to stay married – which discounts the argument that working wives are bad for families.
  • 44% of women said they’d prefer to be the higher earner in their relationship; only 17% of women said they would



Personally, as I watched the two teams present and volley back and forth, I was most engaged by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.  I bring this up because I’ve been reminded lately that one of the barriers to women progressing is their lack of ‘public profile.’  In other words, they are not enough exposed in front of audiences (whether internal company presentations, or high-profile media talking engagements) – either because they’re not asked, don’t volunteer, or lack confidence. 


Sheryl Sandberg Gender Agenda Debate Feb 2010

Sheryl was so compelling to me because of all the presenters, she seemed the most prepared.  The most succinct.  She provided personal anecdotes that gave texture to her assertions.  And she had a very strong point-of-view.  Good public speaking can do wonders for the profile of future leaders – it gets them noticed, and I believe women aiming for the top, should take heed.  For more on public speaking, I recommend John Zimmer’s blog, Manner of Speaking, which provides everything from tips on good public speaking and critiques of speeches, to fun and inspirational quotes.  I also recommend theglasshammer.com’s recent article, 5 Ways to Increase Your Employability (hint: public speaking is one of them).


I’ll leave you with a quote from Sheryl that particularly resonated with me:


“Because [women leave the workforce] we all lose.  We lose because our companies aren’t as profitable, because we waste talent.  Most important we limit women’s ability to contribute in the workforce, and even more important we limit men’s ability to contribute at home.  I think it’s too late for my generation…but it’s not too late for my goddaughter who’s a freshman in college, and for my [young] son and daughter.  I want more choices for my children, both at home and at work.”


à bientôt,




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Hi, thanks for sharing this - there are some fantastic view points. When or do we get to see the full transcript? Unfortunately, due to broadband speeds (or lack thereof) here, it's hard to view the clip on CNBC.

I appreciate the work of all people who share information with others.

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