I spent a lot of the weekend at the Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Packed with inspirational speakers and interestingly devised panels wrestling with often quite messy issues, at its best, it was the kind of brainfood I love. I was particularly inspired by Kiran Bedi, the first female Inspector General of the Indian Police Service. A sprightly sixty-plus year old, Kiran faced the packed auditorium and simply presented her life story, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who walked out of there galvanised about doing more with my own. She spoke with honesty, wit and a touching self-deprecation – none of which masked the fact that she seemed to have already lived five lives in one, picking up the Asian Women’s Tennis Championship, various accolades as the world’s most inventive prison reformer, and the Asian Nobel Peace Prize along the way. Her talk had the effect of the proverbial kick up the backside, so to speak – you only get your life to live once, so don’t waste it.
Sadly, Bedi was one of the few participants in WOW this year who brought a truly global perspective to the events. The vast majority of the speakers were from the West, which is fine given the reality of this event, (despite its title) being hosted by a UK organisation in the UK. But what struck me was how a lot of the discussions and topic material also seemed very skewed towards a wholly Western, developed-nation understanding of what it’s like to be a woman today, massively affected by the successive waves of feminism that have informed them here. Whether it’s how to deal with depression or domestic violence, work-life balance or how to ask for a payrise, all these topics would, I imagine, benefit from the added perspectives of a few more panellists from further away – from China, India, Africa or Latin America.
That said, some hugely important issues were covered. From Holding on to Talent, a session which grappled with the ‘catastrophic’ lack of women at senior levels, to Selling us Short, a session on women in advertising (panellists included Interbrand’s Rita Clifton and Kate Stanners, Saatchi’s ECD) the theme we seemed to keep coming back to time and time again was simply that we need more women in there in the first place, before we can deal with the issues that the few women who are there face. I heard it mentioned so often across the various sessions that I started calling it the ‘rarity principle’. Studies in the US have shown that in a group of 5 politicians, if there are fewer than 3 women, they will be scrutinised for everything other than their policy, from their hair styles to their parenting styles. But as soon as they’re in equal or greater numbers, press scrutiny reverts to the actual topics they’re being elected on (or should be being elected on) – their policy. The advertising talk in particular was unsurprisingly interesting to me, because although it was billed as being a session on the imagery and attitudes to women portrayed in advertising, it turned into a talk on the problems women face working in advertising. Interestingly, it’s the latter, I felt, that affects the former – if you don’t have enough women working on the products for women, you’re going to find it harder to tap into that rich seam of female insight that flows as implicit understanding amongst women. I’m the last person who’d say you have to be a mum to work on a mum-brand (‘the Lynx effect’ idea wasn’t generated by a team of spotty teenagers) but I do think that when it comes to women, it’s really not a good idea to have all-male creative teams on the brand. But walk through any creative department in London today and that’s exactly what you’ll see a lot of.
Out of all the talks and debates, Laura Liswood stood out for me as a pillar of insight, really illuminating some of the ways forward. A senior advisor to Goldman Sachs, she’s interviewed 19 of the world’s female heads of state and heads of government, and set up the Council for Women World Leaders, of which she’s Secretary General. She played just a short clip of her interviews yet it was long enough to get a feel for the warmth, honesty and humour with which these women opened up to her. One of the things she urged us to remember is that women are, quite simply, different - who we are in the workplace, how we behave, and what counts as success for us. She reminded me of something I’d studied many years ago at Oxford – gendered linguistic patterns, leading to conversation styles that achieve very different things. Men talk directly and transactionally, women talk contextually and relationally: ending sentences with an upward inflection, for example, to invite participation. As Liswood reminded us, Thatcher got to where she did partly by completely and utterly adopting the ways of men’s speech – ‘Let’s invade the Falklands?’ just wouldn’t have worked. But there’s something very dangerous about doing that, as it propagates the notion that one gendered speech style guarantees success more than another. Women’s success can come from many more angles than apeing how men work, and according to Liswood, this is what we should be aiming for. The Norwegian experiment with quotas that’s been all over the media recently, in which corporate boards must now have ’40% of the opposite gender’ (got to love those optimistic Norwegians) in order to stay listed, is a case in point. Since adopted, corporate boards in Norway do a few things differently - 1) they read the board materials before coming to the meeting (women do their homework), 2) they take more decisions inside the boardroom, therefore being minuted, as opposed to in the golf club/country club/ nightclub. 3) they consider a wider group of stakeholders over and above shareholders, and 4) they take a longer term view on decisions rather than focus on short term value. All these are positive changes brought about by the different ways in which women think, and behave. I’m not arguing that quotas are the best way forward, but perhaps they’re just the necessary evil to get us beyond the place where the rarity principle reduces our effectiveness, and stops us from celebrating all the great things that we do bring to the table.