Smashing the glass ceiling: 6 Davos leaders explain how they did it

What will it take to achieve gender equality? Image: REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

Stéphanie Thomson
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

When it comes to closing the gender gap, we’ve made an immense amount of progress in a relatively short space of time. But we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

According to the latest Gender Gap Report, worldwide we’ve managed to close only 59% of the gap in economic participation and 23% in politics. In some regions, it could take 1,000 years before we’ve achieved equality between men and women.

What can we do today to make sure our daughters and granddaughters aren’t facing the same challenges? We asked six global leaders for their take.

Emily Carter, Dean, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Princeton University

“The only reason you got the job is because you’re a woman.” I recall those words as if it was yesterday, even though they were uttered 30 years ago. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that words questioning my validity were spewed at me, a Phi Beta Kappa Berkeley grad and soon-to-be Caltech PhD, having just landed my first faculty position at UCLA.

My words of advice are these: find work that gives your life meaning and don’t let anyone dissuade you from pursuing it. Constructive action is the best answer to prejudice. Your hard and excellent work will speak for itself. Rise above the insults; calmly and professionally point out the fallacy of their arguments.

Where has this strategy brought me? Membership in two of the three US National Academies and I’m now Dean of Engineering at Princeton University. You can do it too.

Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership & Human Resources Officer, Accenture

Two years ago I had the privilege to hear Courtney Banghart, head women’s basketball coach at Princeton University, speak at a Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner. She told a story about her dad and his advice – to lift as you rise – as she was growing her career.

This advice is profound in its simplicity. As individuals, we can put cracks in the glass ceiling. But when you invest in the women around you, you create the collective force needed to not just crack, but shatter the glass.

Courtney’s words remind me of the many women and men who have put me on their shoulders and offered opportunities. It deepens my sense of obligation to return the favour. What opportunities do you have to lift as you rise? How can you pay it forward to help the next generation of women achieve their career aspirations?

Nancy A. Sumari, Executive Director, The Neghesti Sumari Foundation

Throughout my journey as a social entrepreneur, and more importantly as a young woman making her way through the business world, I have received a great deal of important advice. Here’s what really stuck with me.

Who you are is not just an identity: it is your truth. Unfortunately, this age of free-flowing information can be overwhelming, and many of us are left unhinged and disconnected from our own truth, with little sense of who we truly are.

But by always looking inwards and channeling that outward, rather than the other way around, young women can take the first steps towards success. Embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses, and you will end up with a better sense of who you are and how you can make a positive difference in the world. If we do that, we’ll smash this glass ceiling.

Umran Beba, Senior Vice-President, Chief Human Resources Officer, Global Human Capital Management, PepsiCo

Although I’m saddened that my native country Turkey ranks near the bottom of the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, I want to do everything in my capacity to contribute towards positive change.

I was lucky enough to be born into a family that wanted me to achieve my full potential. They therefore did everything they could to give me the best opportunities in life. Later in life I was lucky to have a supporting husband and kids for my career and international moves.

What this taught me is that cultural change is critical to achieving gender equality – at the family, company and country levels. Of course, we can tell young women to be confident, to show courage, to take risks and make hard choices in their careers. And they should absolutely do all those things. But without deeper cultural shifts, progress towards equality will stall.

How do we start bringing about some of these cultural changes? I was in Turkey for many years, but over the course of my 30-year career, I’ve also worked in Hong Kong, Dubai and now New York, which has given me a global perspective. As a result, I’m a strong believer in understanding others’ needs. At PepsiCo, we’re committed to achieving gender parity in our management ranks and supporting working caregivers. So from this year, we’ll be offering on-site childcare at our global corporate headquarters in New York and near-site childcare in Texas, and we already do so in some of our overseas locations.

We need more women in business today to represent our consumers, to bring a different point of view and to contribute with a different leadership style, but unless companies and countries make cultural shifts to adapt to this new reality, how can we expect to make progress?

Justine Cassell, Associate Dean, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

“You are the most autocratic young lady I’ve ever met,” my boss wrote to me in an email, criticizing the fact that I had disagreed with him. Even as a new faculty member without much experience in academia, it seemed to me that he would not have made the same comment to one of the men in the department – neither used the word “autocratic” nor called the professor a “young man”.

Fast forward 21 years, and after giving a high-profile keynote address I asked my hosts for feedback. Were there other points I might have included to make my argument stronger? “It was great,” said one of my hosts, “but you should really smile more. Smiling engages the audience.” I bit my lip and managed to stop myself from telling him that searching for “you should smile more” + “women” generated almost 12 million hits (true!) explaining why – just like for men – it’s the content of what we say that should matter, and not the aesthetic package it’s delivered in. I watched the video, and in fact I was smiling – at least as much as every other (male) speaker.

I’ve also learned to bite my lip when journalists ask if it’s because I’m a “girl” that I work on the social aspects of artificial intelligence. But given how common comments like these are, I’ve come up with a strategy, and that is to earnestly reply that I think it’s probably more likely because women have already broken barriers to become computer scientists, which allows us to more easily break the boundaries within the field and do the most exciting work.

A “glass ceiling” is really a set of stereotypes that are in contradiction with one another. That is, the stereotype of the profession “computer scientist” is at odds with the stereotype of the gender “woman” and so some people may vacillate between thinking that women aren’t tough enough to make it as computer scientists . . . and thinking that tough female computer scientists aren’t feminine enough to be acceptable women. We all use stereotypes to make processing the world easier – rather than seeing things anew, we can just group what we see into types that we already have.

What do we do about it? Well, talking about this phenomenon a lot is important. As is not taking it personally. I’m working on growing a thicker skin so that when I am called “aggressive” rather than “passionate” I don’t take it quite so hard. That glass ceiling is going to be there. The only question is whether I run away and look for an unencumbered view of the sky, or just keep focusing on the work I love regardless of – and in order to change – these uneducated responses to my passionate and outspoken persona.

Anandi Mani, Professor of Behavioural Economics and Public Policy, University of Oxford

Smashing the glass ceiling requires us to address the issues that hold women back. To do this, we need to start getting more women into positions of political decision-making.

Take the example of India: research shows that having female political representatives is an effective tool for tackling gender crimes. In areas with female political leaders, police are more responsive in both documenting and dealing with gender crimes, such as violence against women. Other research shows that when there are women politicians in village-level local government, women go more often to village council meetings, and speak up in these meetings to voice their concerns.

But while all the evidence points to how much of a difference political representation makes in the fight for gender equality, politics is still, in almost every country, a male-dominated affair. In the US, for example, it’s been predicted that it will be another 500 years before we achieve gender parity in politics.

What made the Indian experiment effective in tackling women’s concerns like crime, was a quota that drew in a large swathe of female politicians at the lowest levels of government, rather than in a few top positions. Female political quotas have also worked in places like Rwanda. It might be time to introduce similar measures in other countries.

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