Recently, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the gathering of 2,500 CEOs, heads of state, and visionaries from the arts. At Davos, I saw Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, met Miss Universe, and participated with the “titans of social media” — as the founders of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn squared off. Heady stuff. But mid week, I went to a session that eclipsed them all. It was innocuously entitled The Power of the Purse.
Davos is an economic forum and I went for economic interests. But I went to this session for different reasons. At work I’m a CEO, but at home I’m a widow. When my wife died of cancer three years ago I took on a new, foreign role — mom, and so I attended this session with my 7-year-old daughter Ruby in mind. I thought this session might give me some insight into the world as she will encounter it.
But as I took my seat, I felt out of place. There I was, one of a handful of men with 60 of the most accomplished women in the world. I felt like I had mistakenly slipped behind enemy lines, then been cordially invited to an intimate power lunch in the general’s tent. The panel included Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, author Margaret Atwood, Laura Liswood, senior advisor at Goldman Sachs and author of The Loudest Duck, and Laura Tyson, former chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors.
The two-hour session was like an intellectual popcorn popper; one profound observation shot up after another, and I frantically took notes. The conversation ricocheted between social, sexual, business, and emotional topics. So rather than present them as one thought, I thought I’d list the tastiest kernels:
1. Women, if viewed as an emerging market, are bigger than China and India combined. The economic power of women is rising rapidly. By 2013, the worldwide income of women will rise by $5.1 trillion, which is greater than China's expected growth of $3 trillion over the same time period. And their power is vast: women’s income, worldwide, is greater than the income of China and India combined.
2. 80% of buying decisions in the world are made by women. At first I didn’t believe this statistic. Later, I met the VP of Nissan Motors for Asia. Now I figured of any purchase, that cars would be a male-dominated decision. Wrong. He told me that 70% of the decisions to buy a Nissan are made by women.
3. Men spend money on women and whisky; women spend money on the family. Margaret Atwood observed that this is why 94% of the borrowers from the renowned Grameen Bank are women, each of whom is playing a key role in allowing millions of individuals to work their way out of poverty with increased independence. And historically, this is probably why in Native North American communities the job of dividing up the kill was given to older women — they knew which families needed more.
4. The board of directors gap is still too wide. The CEO sitting next to me told me a story about a woman friend of hers who recently got a call from a recruiter who had been tasked to find a woman for the board of a venerable company that had sold exclusively to women for over 20 years. The board had never included a woman; she would be the first one. Amazed, she declined the interview.
5. Hire women executives, raise profits. When I observed that I had worked in precious few technology companies that had women executives, the woman next to me said: “Well you are leaving money on the table. Studies show that companies with women executives have a healthier top and bottom line.” After this session, I believe her.
6. The more powerful the woman is, the happier the marriage is. I have to admit that I struggled to find research to support the claim that the probability of divorce decreases as a women’s income increases; in fact I found the opposite. But this group felt strongly that professionally balanced marriages are happier marriages and this instinctively made sense to me.
7. A call for balance, not quotas. Surprisingly, this panel of women seemed undisturbed with the natural bias that men — or indeed any group — have to work with people they’re comfortable with. The call to action for male CEOs and boards was for an increased but balanced presence of women leaders, not a coup d’etat.
8. Vocation is just as important as raising kids. The prevailing sentiment among these successful women is that they feel their jobs are as important as their role as a mom. Not more, not less.
9. The way the women interacted was different and in many ways, better. As I was listening, I realized that this Davos session was different than all of the others. Like all the sessions, the speakers were intelligent and passionate. But if the sessions were like a musical performance, the male-dominated ones were like a series of screaming solo acts. By contrast, The Power of the Purse session was more like a skilled jazz improvisation — the speakers were good, built on one another, and the sum of the observations was greater than the individual points. Any business could use more of this type of discourse.
10. A question for CEOs to ask: would you want your daughter to work at your company? Laura Liswood posed this question. She spoke of the framework for understanding the dynamics of diversity in the workplace.
11. Women are just plain better at some leadership roles. I’ve been involved in 15 corporate mergers and acquisitions, and one of the toughest things to do well is post- transaction integration. The women in this session quoted findings that women who lead acquisitions are more successful than their male counterparts. This one resonated on my own logic scale.
12. Are men ready to be displaced? The men my 7-year-old daughter will encounter 20 years from now will be radically different than today’s men. The women at Davos forecast a near-term crisis of self-esteem for men and a re-adjustment of our self- images. That’s an exciting — and scary — thought. What are the implications of a dramatic shift in self-image and power for men? For women? For business? For society? Will men be introspective enough to aid and abet this subtle yet dramatic shift to a more feminine view of power and leadership? This seemed like the deepest of topics that was dealt just a glancing blow, and it’s one that continues to ruminate in my mind.
13. Women work not from choice, but from necessity. Margaret Atwood graciously emphasized this point for me. Many women — worldwide — work not from choice but from necessity. They do it to earn money to feed their kids. It has never been the case that all men worked and all women stayed home. That was a middle-class Victorian ideal, but it was true for only a few women then. The rest were factory workers, farm workers, domestic help, and prostitutes. In fact, huge numbers of “women workers” were prostitutes then, many of them children.
14. Call to action for male CEOs: start an affirmative search for women leaders. When the topic of quotas came up, most women rejected the idea. Laura D'Andrea Tyson advocated the idea of an affirmative search: for men to leave our comfort zone and search for more women leaders, more women as board members, and more women in political office. Profits will go up, decisions will be better, and society will be a better place.
Whenever I leave a thought-provoking event like the World Economic Forum, I ask myself: “With everything I learned, what’s the one thing I’ll do differently?” From the 2010 Davos Forum, the answer was simple — I’ll heed Laura Tyson’s call for an affirmative search to include more women on my leadership teams and encourage other men to do the same. And if you’re still not convinced to do it for your business, do it for your daughters.