Last week I had the privileged and honor of rubbing shoulders with 5000 women leaders and listen to and benefit from the wisdom and expertise of over 100 inspiring women speakers of the calibre of Hillary Clinton, Brene Brown, Diane von Furstenberg, Candy Chang, Kara Swisher, Rosalind Hudnell, Jessica Herrin, Jill Abramson and many more.
Wondering who had such an amazing convening power? I’m talking about Watermark’s inaugural Lead On Conference for Women which took place on 24 February in Santa Clara (Silicon Valley). The event offered connection, information and inspiration, motivation and momentum to help us women discover what we want—and go get it!
As a development worker one of our many goals is to bridge the gender gap in developing countries and to design and implement development interventions that empower women and foster gender equality and equity.
In the agricultural sector, FAO estimates that “if women had equal access to productive inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers, yields from their fields would increase by 20 to 30 per cent. This would boost total agricultural output by up to 4 per cent in developing countries, reducing the number of hungry people globally by 12 to 17 per cent, or 100 million to 150 million people.”
For me this event presented a unique opportunity to learn from the achievements and accomplishments of these successful and inspiring women so that I could take these nuggets and explore the feasibility of replicating their achievements in development related interventions, thus giving a voice to the voiceless and contributing to make a dent in the glass ceiling.
During the course of the day, as I was listening to keynote speakers and attending the various sessions, two things came as a great surprise to me:
- magnitude of the gender gap in the United States
- realization that gender inequality is something universal - dare I call it a global illness
Back in 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) report entitled Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity estimated that the global economy has missed out on 27 percent of GDP growth per capita due to the gender gap in the labor market.
The report estimated that “having an equal number of women to men in their labor force could increase economic growth by 5 percent in the U.S. and as much as 34 percent in Egypt. While Japan deals with an aging and shrinking workforce, women could fill the gap and boost the economy by almost 10 percent.”
"There is ample evidence that when women are able to develop their full labor market potential, there can be significant macroeconomic gains," the report says.
Hillary Clinton reminded us that “in developed countries like the U.S., closing the participation gap would result in an 8 to 10 percent of an increase in gross domestic product over the next 15 to 20 years, and In less developed countries, it could be 30 to 40 percent and around the world, GDP would grow by nearly 12 percent by 2030.”
And a recent Harvard Business Review estimates that “If women in the United States, Japan, and Egypt were employed at the same rates as men, the GDPs of those countries would be higher by 5%, 9%, and 34%, respectively.”
All of this came two days after Oscar winning best supporting actress Patricia Arquette used the Academy Award ceremony as a platform for her crie-de-coeur to raise awareness about gender inequality.
"It is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America," she said.
According to the US Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman earns just 78 cents for doing the same job. It is estimated that in the US, women earn 18 percent less a week than men. And one of the most shocking statistics is the fact that in the United States there there are only 24 women CEOs in 500 S&P companies.
With this backdrop, the 5000 participants at the LeadOn Conference while sharing their experiences committed to harness their respective power to bring about change and reverse the gender inequality trend.
Getting up close and personal with my mentors
Being in the proximity of a born leader is always a thrill, and it is much more so, if this born leader is a woman and even more so if it is Hillary Clinton.
In the heart of the male dominated Silicon Valley, Madam Clinton reminded the high-tech industry that limiting women’s participation in the industry means curtailing prosperity and innovation.
“Gender equality is not just a nice thing to do…..Where women are included you are more likely to have democracy.”
“We can literally count on one hand the number of women who have actually been able to come here and turn their dreams into billion-dollar businesses,” Clinton said. “We’re going backwards in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward”.
“Today women receive only 18 percent of computer science degrees, whereas in the 1980s women took home 38 percent of those degrees. Our economy seems to be operating like it’s 1955.”
She called on female technology executives to do more to help women. "As women, let us do more to help all women lead on and lead. What you do doesn't have to be dramatic. You don't have to run for office. Although if you do more power to you.”
“[If] we want to find our balance again, we have to figure out how to make this new economy work for everyone,” she said.
Shifting gears and in sharing her work with the Clinton Foundation, I was about to jump out of my skin, when Madam Clinton shared the example of the how the use of mobile telephony has empowered the women of self-employed women association (SEWA) in India, as my organization, IFAD, has been working with and financing SEWA’s activities.
At the end of a 33 minute inspiring talk, for which she received a standing ovation, Madam Clinton sat for a 34 minute interview with the almighty Kara Swisher. Swisher did a remarkable job and Secretary Clinton was truly a star in playing ball with her. Sit back, relax and watch this masterpiece.
What I learnt
Feeling the great energy and power in presence of 5000 inspirational ladies who stride to make a difference in people’s life, I learnt that it is a privilege to be a woman, I learnt and that as a woman we need to be bold to grow.
As the day progressed, we were challenged to explore when was the last time we acknowledged the strengths, power and potential of women around us? When was the last time we mentored a woman? When was the last time we encouraged people to speak up and reward them for their ideas? When was the last time we valued ourselves as a woman? When was the last time that we changed course when we felt under-valued?
As leaders we were reminded that our job is to set a vision. We were also reminded not to be harsh on ourselves, to seize all opportunities to learn, grow, do something different and walk through new doors.
We were reminded to learn from failures, not to take failures personally and not be afraid of failing. Janine Driver in her inspirational talk made us commit “This year is about me. I shall develop, decide and deliver”.
Thank you Watermark, the 100+ speakers and the 5000 inspiring participants for teaching me to lead on with confidence. It was truly an honor and privilege to be part of your family, rub shoulders with you and learn from you.
We shall LEADON.