The WIL power: a way forward for women in a gender-neutral dialogue

Dr. Auma Obama speaking at the WIL panel on women game changers. (Image via Vanessa Khalil)

From Hollywood to Silicon Valley, gender discrimination and sexual harassment scandals have inundated media headlines in the past few months. The frenzy surrounding women who brought their personal stories to light – and the men who had tried to hide them – was not without reason. But in the midst of sensationalized coverage, many voices are warning against an echo chamber that regurgitates the symptoms, rather than the root, of the gender disequilibrium issue. Many of these voices – mostly women – were at this year’s Global Women In Leadership Forum (WIL) in Dubai.

My problem with these [gender] conversations is that they only get interesting when something happens in the West. And I think it sometimes deflects [the dialogue] from the real problem,” said Dr. Auma Obama, founder at Sauti Kuu foundation for disadvantaged children and young individuals, in a panel titled Women game changers, disruptors and innovators. From Tutzing to Kenya, Sauti Kuu’s model was built around providing economic growth opportunities based on communities’ locally available resources – gender and socioeconomic class aside. “In the work we do with our foundation, we do not differentiate between girls and boys,” Obama added.

The struggle is real

Underserved communities working towards the basics of economic sustainability and prosperity cannot afford gender discrimination conversations - they are covering the bases for everyone. But the corporate world, fueled by cut-throat competition, and the money behind it, can.

When Obama’s co-panelist, Laila Alawa and her business partner started in the US The Tempest, a media platform for women that covers social, personal, lifestyle, and cultural issues, they knew they were up against an “extremely saturated space, particularly for women and millennials”. They also knew they had a unique proposition: content for women by 20,000 women from all over the world. But when “only 7 to 10% of media companies worldwide are actually owned and run by women,” this proposition can lose relevance with decision makers.

The Tempest team’s fast growth was not spared compromising positions faced by other women entrepreneurs. Alawa and company claimed that they had sexual advances made towards them and, while in the running for an incubator whose offer they turned down, “they [the incubator] actually threatened to ruin our reputation in the industry.”

Having more female founders, more female high-ranked executives in businesses will allow us to feel more comfortable to speak up,” said co-panelist Assia Grazioli-Vernier, venture partner and founder at  Muse Capital, and member of the Juventus football Club board of directors. With women currently representing only 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, this is a logical assertion, if nothing more.

A numbers game

But away from gender equality idealism, power women like Grazioli-Vernier are making the case for women on top based on their contribution to revenues and economic growth. The way they see it is, it simply makes financial sense. “Most of the women that are not invested in don’t get a chance because a lot of the founders of venture funds are men,” she said. Having herself been involved in Spotify’s acceleration from 40 to 40,000 employees, Grazioli-Vernier’s ultimate goal is to show that women can create just as big revenue-generating opportunities as men can.

In a later panel around male-dominated industries - which featured reps from pharmaceutical, real estate, fashion and finance sectors -  Menassie Taddese, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Gulf’s regional president, cited a joint study by Columbia University and University of Maryland, which estimated a firm’s added value from gender diversity at senior leadership and board levels at 2 percent. And, “if you are talking about Pfizer, a 200 billion-dollar company, 2% matters,” said Taddese.

Pfizer’s Global Women Council has set the tone on gender equality at the top of the food chain, and has trickled down to initiatives, such as One Bold Move, encouraging men to empower women by betting on potential top female talents. Equally, Pfizer’s Raise Your Hand calls on women to take ownership of their career and opportunities within the company they believe they deserve.

Manning up

In corporate organizations, women networks - committees and councils dedicated to women empowerment and advancement within the company - albeit holding huge potential, cannot do it alone without top-down, internal support and commitment, added Rana Nawas, a former senior vice president, Aircraft trading in GE, in a later panel.

But the role of men in women empowerment remains highly debatable, as it transpired in the WIL discussions. Obama is not particularly a fan of segregating anything by gender – let alone holding one gender accountable for the growth of the other. “The gist of the conversation sounds to me like we are trying to get the men to give us space. We need to create our own spaces,” she asserted.

One woman who has done just that is Obama’s co-panelist Lina Khalifeh, the founder of SheFighter, the Amman-based Middle East’s first self-defense club for women. The club has trained more than 15,000 women, and Khalifeh herself designed its martial arts and self-defense program around women’s psychological and physical barriers. Khalifeh is now partnering with NGOs, and has started a discussion with Obama at WIL to roll out Shefighter across Sauti Kuu’s projects.

Facebook’s Iverson believes the gender equality conversation is valid, even if currently one-sided. “Take something like maternity leave. Women can be disadvantaged for taking time off when they first have a baby” she says. In the region, the gap between paternity and maternity leave remains wide, and is being revisited by talent and HR managers.

Having been faxed her termination letter from her own company Pets.com in 1999, over a conflict of opinion with the new CEO on the company’s direction, Iverson only really started talking about that failure in 2014. She calls on women to muster the same courage, particularly in shrugging off the notion of a tradeoff between personal and professional success. “Women tend to opt out in middle management because they believe [they] cannot have an exceptional career and an exceptional personal life,” she added.

The root of these preset gender notions and biases, said Nawas, starts from the very early childhood days. “Gender stereotypes that we are given between the ages of five and seven shape us for the rest of our lives. Princeton released a report earlier this year stating that the confidence gap between men and women actually begins at the age of five. By the age of six, girls and boys believe that boys are stronger and smarter.” And by the time these girls and boys reach the corporate ladder, they will, evidently, find it hard to shake off these beliefs.

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