"Will you please train us on the situation of women?" was the request from Avanade when they asked me to give a keynote speech at the Women's Leadership Day event that they organized in Milan last week. The billion dollar global company was bringing together some 300 employees, partners and clients in partnership with Alpitour and Mercedez Benz, to inspire and encourage leaders to continue to create a more equal and diverse workplace.
I duly gave my speech, which combined data, photos and stories to make four key points:
• Investing in women's leadership as Oxfam has done with our 'Raising Her Voice' work pays off dividends for men and women, immediately and over the long term, and is still very necessary. Only 22% of the world's parliamentarians are women.
• Unpaid and underpaid work is holding women back. There is still a 24% wage gap globally. Women spend more than double the time as men on unpaid care work. We must redistribute and recognise both in the macro economy and in our lives, this work, as Oxfam's We Care project seeks to do.
• Access to information technology, such as Oxfam's Pink Phone project in Cambodia. When combined with support to organise, it can empower women as leaders and bring more negotiating power, leading to higher incomes and access to services. 25% fewer women than men own phones and the digital divide is set to grow from 200m to 350m fewer women having internet.
• Working multi-sectorally to change the attitudes of both men and women is very important and I told stories from both Malawi and Zambia to illustrate this. However we must continue to value and fund women's own organisations and movements. Research shows a correlation between strength of women's groups and strength of women's rights, yet research by AWID of 740 women's organizations found median annual income of $20,000, with 48% receiving no core funding - funding is going down.
I was happy to see 'Invest in a woman, it pays dividends' 'Information and technology is not enough, empower connections with other women' 'Check out the @oxfam pink phone project in Cambodia. Very cool' being tweeted #wlday by @JBroLdn @startup_italia @AvanadeInc and others to audiences Oxfam may not normally reach.
However, I began to believe I was being given a run for my money in terms of promoting women's leadership during the panel of male CEOs that immediately followed. "Diversity improves business" said Avanade's global CEO, Adam Warby, citing research that for every 1% increase in women in leadership there is a 3% increase in revenues. One measure in his scorecard is increasing women's leadership.
"Diversity makes a more innovative company and makes a decisive contribution in the form of talent, experience and skills" said Roland Schell, President of Mercedez-Benz, in whose three storey flagship showroom we were holding the event.
Carlo Purassanta, the CEO of Microsoft Italy, laid out a long list of strategies they have taken to achieve 50% of their leaders being women, including more flexible working and support services such as a crèche and kindergarten. This from a company where only 28% of the workforce are women and a country where only 8% of senior business leaders are women. Microsoft has provided free training for 2,000 girls from all over the world through their Pink Cloud initiative which aims to provide a fast track for girls and achieve a fair representation of gender in the industry, economy, politics and social life. I was impressed; this is a project I'd love to be part of.
During the final panel, each of the senior women sharing their lessons called up to stage a young woman to share their experiences, and it was evident there was a strong, mutual, mentoring and learning ethos. The focus on intergenerational leadership development was another success I would love to see more of within charities and social movements.
But for the young women employees present, attending from offices around the world (another impressive step on the part of the sponsoring corporate), the highlights were the life stories and lessons shared by a series of senior women leaders. I wished I had heard these lessons early on in my own career:
"Don't suffocate your ambition and assume that you should limit your career objectives, your aspirations or your personality to be a mother. Family must be a support not a constraint, otherwise the potential loss is negative for the whole country as well as frustrating for you" stressed Stefania Bariatti, President of Sias.
"Don't try to be like men. Value our differences. Talk about these first among women and then everyone else to understand and enhance differences to create a different and better world" said Debora Guma of Carrefour Italy.
"Work to change policies and systems but also public opinion so that female traits of inclusiveness, flexibility, and teamwork - which explains why women leaders enhance business results - are valued" said Bianca Maria Farina, CEO Poste and Poste Vita Assures.
I wondered whether Oxfam's presence was really necessary, but was then reminded. "The stories you told were the most inspiring" said one of the Avanade employees. 'We think we have challenges, but those women you described are the true women leaders. They put our issues into perspective and inspire me to do more". The women Oxfam works with in communities work to implement these lessons every day, against incredible odds: They are our greatest teachers.