Speaking recently to the American Ambassador in Paris’ office regarding a request for her support to our local charity, I was told by her assistant that the “protocol” department will not be able to treat our correspondence in the coming week, as Her Excellency will be extremely busy attending International Women’s Day events taking place in Paris. That was an excellent reminder for me to arrange to cover this poignant day, which brings to light globally the importance of celebrating women, and related issues such as gender parity, equality, equal opportunity, etc… bref, all the things that affect me as a professional woman in the 21st century.
On the 8th of March, I found myself entering the impressive halls of the OECD Conference Centre close to Porte de la Muette… The halls were full of people there to attend the myriad conferences and plenary sessions that the OECD hosts every year. I was transported back to a time when I was a member of the hallowed young professionals set, all well-dressed in suits, conference delegate identification tags around their necks, impressive C.V.’s, and the confidence to go with it.
Excitement in the large auditorium was building as the “Conference on improving women’s access to leadership: What works?” was about to start. The conference, taking place on International Women’s Day 2016, is meant to examine ways to close leadership gender gaps in both the public and corporate sectors, especially the importance of increasing women’s participation in top posts to foster inclusive economic growth. It will also launch the 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life and help implement the G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance.
The Secretary-General of the OECD, Mr. Angel Gurria, gave the welcoming remarks and charmingly set the tone for the serious issues to be discussed, debated, and concluded in the conference. The Plenary Session that followed was entitled: “What’s new in today’s landscape in women’s access to leadership positions?”. The moderator of the session was Gabriela Ramos, the efficient Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa of the OECD.
The panel to discuss this question were both male and female high level government and OECD officials, and CEO’s of global companies such as Deloitte and Sodexo, two of the private companies making big efforts in promoting women leaders within their midst. The two people who stood out most for me on the panel were women:
Kaori Sasak:, one of the top female business leaders in Japan, President & CEO of e-woman, Inc, President of UNICUL International and Chair of the Committee for the International Conference for Women in Business, who also serves as a board member of several public corporations and on councils of various ministries in her country. Given that in 2015, Japan’s share of female board members was only 3%, hers is an outstanding achievement. Although things are changing according to the “OECD Background Report” to the conference: Japan is set to fill 30% of all leadership positions with women by 2020.
Silvana Koch-Mehrin: long-time member of the European Parliament and founder of the Women in Parliaments (WIP) Forum, a worldwide network of female politicians, and an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit foundation, whose mission is to advance society by increasing the number and influence of women in political leadership. I liked her direct, practical approach and assessment of the challenges women face in accessing leadership positions in public and corporate institutions.
At the end of this stimulating plenary session, where the panellists explored new trends and challenges in women’s access to leadership positions in the public and corporate sectors, we headed for a well-deserved coffee break, which saw the warm greetings and mingling between OECD, EU and various government ambassadors, delegates, and staff taking place. It was heartening to see…
We subsequently were asked to attend one of two Breakout sessions on offer: Session 1, entitled “Policy choices and good practices in the corporate world”, chaired by Sarah Gordon, Business Editor of the Financial Times, and Session 2: “Policy choices and good practices in the public sector”, chaired by Michelle d’Auray, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OECD for Canada. Both had impressive guest panellists from the United Kingdom, India, the U.A.E., the IMF, France, Indonesia, Europe, and the OECD.
The first session, focusing on the corporate world, discussed what lessons can be drawn from the increased efforts to improve gender balance at the top of companies, given the growing awareness of the risk to companies and the economy of an under-representation of women in leadership, with the introduction of measures introduced by shareholders/investors, companies, and governments to close this gender gap through tools such as quotas, targets, disclosure-based and voluntary initiatives.
The second session, addressing the public sector, discussed what lessons had been learned from countries’ initiatives of taking active steps to achieve gender equality by introducing affirmative measures, gender-responsive institutional frameworks, creating incentives and supporting development of skills, given the realisation that bridging the gender divide in public leadership, in legislatives, executives, judiciaries, and public administration is a matter of effective governance and inclusiveness of economic growth.
The senior decision-makers, experts, academics, and stakeholders, from both the public and corporate world, shared their experiences and provided very interesting insights into what works, in their opinion, and why. The outcome of these discussions will be fed into an issues paper on new trends, international benchmarks, and good practice, plus a report, of which the outcome will be the development of an action plan to support the implementation and monitoring of the Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, the G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, and the Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Employment, Education, and Entrepreneurship.
At the end of the highly thought-provoking and productive “Conference on improving women’s access to leadership”, Mari Kiviniemi, the Deputy Secretary General of the OECD chaired a plenary discussion reporting from the breakout sessions, discussing the way forward, and the development of an action plan.
Ending the long 2016 International Women’s Day celebrations at the OECD, with refreshing cocktails at its George Marshall room.. for a moment I couldn’t help but think that despite all the good intentions of the various governmental organisations and corporates, evidence shows that “while quota policies and regulations are driving more women to the boardroom, the share of women in executive roles remains significantly unequal and mostly skewed to areas of less influence” (Credit Suisse, 2014). “According to a ten-year survey with Fortune Global 200 companies (CWDI, 2015), there has been less than a 1% increase of women on boards per year since 2004”. Also, “globally, women only account for 12% of board seats among the world’s largest companies.. In developed markets, women account for 13.4% of directors versus 8.8% in emerging markets (MSCI, 2014).” “At the current pace, it will take 81 years to attain any results nearing gender parity (EY, 2015a, WEF, 2014)”.
The discouraging statistics go on and on…
However, things are definitely moving in the right direction, for to quote OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria: “Women are the most under-utilised economic asset in the world’s economy”. I also agree with the “further action” points suggested in the in-depth, excellent “Background Report” to the “Conference on improving women’s access to leadership”, one of which states:
“Frame the issue of gender inclusion as a business opportunity, rather than as a women’s issue. As the research cited in this paper has shown, the benefits of gender-balanced leadership related not only to company performance, but also risk management, company reputation, innovation, and talent leverage. Reframing the debate can facilitate solutions.”
I left the OECD… rushing to my next International Women’s Day event: The “Women’s Role in Sustainable Development” Exhibition, taking place at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, and hosted by its Director-General, Irina Bokova… yet another woman at the head of a major global institution. But that’s for another article.
Did anyone mention “glass ceilings”…?