When Parsha and I took on the Women in Business leadership role back in Summer of 2020, our MBA journey was already shaping up differently than what we had expected. Little did we know that this disruption would continue, and even today, more than one year out, we are still learning and adapting to this new normal.
Every year, the Women in Business club at LBS curate together a community-wide, student-led conference where people can connect, share stories, and discuss the most pressing issues we are all facing. This year, the EQUALL Conference theme was Flattening the (Gender) Curve. Under the leadership of our amazing Co-chairs, Shajia and Thomas, and their all-star team, we had our largest conference in 21 years with over 900 participants dialled in virtually from across the globe. We had 62 incredible speakers, who covered diverse topics ranging from leadership to personal development to modern households and thriving in the new normal. For many of us, we are still in survival mode, having received set-backs in our personal and professional lives due to the pandemic. But it was powerful to hear how others have experienced similar challenges, and share ways to come out stronger.
As United States Senator Elizabeth Warren stated in her welcome address, “One way we can help navigate these difficult times and emerge stronger is by getting out there, speaking out, and fighting for what we believe in.” In line with this, I want to take this opportunity to share some of my insights and takeaways from the EQUALL Conference.
This past year is a call to action for individuals, collectives, and companies to focus on parity for the benefit of businesses and beyond.
On a global and business level, there’s been some movements and change, but we are still far from reaching the United Nation’s Global Goal of gender equality. As Dr. Amy Jadesimi, CEO of Ladol and Founding Commissioner for Business & Sustainable Development Commission, shared during her keynote “Women Leading for the Global Goals”, a study across 22,000 firms from 91 countries found that almost 60% of firms had no female board members, over 50% had no women in the C-suit and less than 5% of firms had a female CEO. This situation was worsened by recent events, even though it matters a great deal to have female representation at the firm level. The statistics and facts speak volumes – firms with just some representation of women in leadership have 53% higher return on equity and 42% higher profit. Similar trends are seen in decision making, where having at least three women on the board yielded much better decisions. It is clear that having female leaders produce better results, so then why do we still have so few female leaders? It’s not because there’s fewer women to start out with. Dr. Jadesimi shared, “In fact, the chances of a woman rising from the bottom to the top of a company is 28% that of a man’s.” The reality is that there are obstacles and roadblocks that prevent women from rising to the top.
These challenges are even more pronounced in developing countries, especially those focused on fostering sustainable businesses. While data shows that women are better at running these sustainable businesses than men, women in these countries face major barriers in terms of access to education, opportunities, and even personal safety. It is critical to empower these women because they are key to achieving the sustainability goals and increase GDP and foster growth for developing nations.
In business, there’s this idea that disruption is opportunity. The world continues to change at an accelerated speed, last year was one of chaotic shift as everything we knew, our norms of living, working, and interacting with one another, suddenly changed. We are thrown into a new normal, one without precedents. In “Leadership in the New Normal”, our panellists, Angelica Fuentes, Business Woman and Impact Investor, Global Advocate for the Girl Up Campaign, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, global expert on gender balance, Uma Kambhampati, Head of the School of Politics, Economics & International Relations at the University of Reading, and Mauricio Graber, President & CEO of bioscience company Chr. Hansen, shared the robust results that women-led countries did better during the pandemic. Women tend to be great in handling crises and navigating change, because of our agility, our predisposition to act as connectors, and our resilience.
Even with the wealth of empirical evidence showing how women at the top can benefit a company’s performance, culture, and global sustainability, change has been excruciatingly slow, even non-existent in some cases. For well-established companies, it’s often a matter of inertia; people don’t like change, and without a burning platform, there may be little incentive for change. The way forward, in those cases, is to start the conversation, get companies and leaders aware of these empirical findings. But the reality is that status quo firms will unlikely be the ones leading the change, it is the flexible and nimble organisations who are and will continue to lead the way.
We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the business-level benefits, but what about global effects? McKinsey Global Institute had done a study which found that achieving parity in the workplace by 2025 can result in global GDP increasing by 28 trillion US dollars. This is not about giving women a voice so they could reap individual benefits, this is about how parity and equal representation can benefit the society and the world we all live in. In order to reach the Global Goals, we need to create and support women leaders in all spheres of life.
Improving ourselves and building on our strengths to flatten the gender curve.
Throughout the two days, we were also provided ample opportunities to improve ourselves, in the ways we lead, tell stories, balance our priorities, negotiate effectively, and present virtually.
I’ll keep this brief and share three tips that I think are particularly relevant in our current environment. The first is about our virtual presence, covered by the “Elevating Your Virtual Presence” workshop by Lara King, award winning comedian and improviser. When we have hours of Zoom calls packed into a day, it can become easy to lose some of the habits we had built up in interacting with others, even simple acts like smiling and eye contact. It might sound ridiculous, but I’ve done this before, tackling each video call as a meeting, and not seeing it as an important point of interaction. People think that the screen mollifies presence, but I think it actually amplifies it. When you go into a meeting with lots of energy and optimism, it translates across screens. So next time you have a Zoom call, try smiling, and you will see in the reaction of your audience that it is almost impossible not to smile back.
The second is the importance of authenticity. We are here today because women and men of the past were courageous and stood up for what they believed in. While it can be intimidating or uncomfortable to stay the course in the face of contrarian views, we need to stay true to our values, share our stories, and speak up for what we believe in. It truly goes a long way when we are authentic and when we share, because that’s how we connect with each other, and show others that they are not alone in their beliefs, dreams, and challenges.
The third is on leadership. Dr. Jadesimi made the important reminder that sometimes you need to lead from behind, as demanded by the context, and that is ok as long as you have a strong team, because you can support each other in reaching your goals. Which is why we need to build our tribes, grow a strong support network, and be thankful to our teams. I know from experience that all of this is much harder to do in a virtual world, where we are often connecting with people for the first time remotely. While it’s challenging, it’s important to remember that it’s challenging for everyone. When we have all been in different degrees of lockdown during the past year, it’s wonderful to connect with others. You never know – some of the people you connect virtually with during these turbulent times may just become your most valued friends and rocks.
We were humbled by the engagement and enthusiasm we received during the lead up to the conference and over the two days of scheduling. It was inspiring to be a part of these important conversations and thank you for taking the time to hear my thoughts. As we move through 2021 and a new normal is created, the Women in Business Club is looking forward to playing our part in flattening the gender curve and creating an EQUALL tomorrow.
Ina Liu (MBA 2021) is Co-President of the Women in Business Club and VP of Events for the Impact Consulting Club at London Business School. Prior to LBS, Ina studied business at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and was a project leader with the Government of Canada. Ina completed her MBA summer internship with Bain in their Boston office. Ina is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.