The IE Women’s Week was led with a number of events ranging from informative to interactive sessions. The week started with its fourth annual Women in Leadership Conference, with this year’s theme Leading Forward. The half-day conference brought together an unprecedented number of students, alumni, faculty, and professionals from across the globe to discuss some of the most important issues affecting women in the workplace and in their personal lives.
Authors: Paulina Capurro and Paula Koller
Five incredible leaders, representing all five continents, came together during IE’s Women’s Week to discuss perceptions of gender equality across different cultures. Moderator and IE economics Professor, Dr. Patricia Gabaldón, dove straight into it asking the panelists to share their thoughts and experiences as female leaders in their respective fields.
María Emma Mejía, Colombian diplomat in the United Nations, journalist and politician, spoke about the challenges women face in politics. When María entered the United Nations in New York to elect the 8th secretary general, she once again only saw the faces of men in leadership positions. The United Nations, which has existed for 75 years, remains an incredibly male dominated environment. María, together with five women and men, began an initiative to push for female leadership; encouraging women to present themselves and become elected by their countries. “At the time there were only 50 of us supporting the cause and 30 women ambassadors, now we have 151 supporters and 47 women ambassadors”. These may seem humble numbers, but they are great strides considering the robustness of the political environment. Far from the corporate reality there are women going into war zones as peacekeepers or as blue helmets. “It is not an easy position for a woman”, María explained, “particularly because women and young girls are extremely vulnerable and affected during wars”, as they become properties of value and targets of sexual violence. Although the consciousness of the issue is profound the overwhelming male dominance in the environment remains an obstacle. “The push for gender equality needs to be stronger, it needs to go even further” she argued.
Maya Helbaoui, public affairs head at Roche Pharmaceuticals and member in the IE International Women’s Board, developed a breast cancer awareness campaign in Lebanon specifically targeted at men. “I believe in insights”, Maya shared, “and to gain these insights the first thing we did is paused. We took a step back and listened to the conversations to understand what was really happening”. They discovered that in Lebanon – as in many other countries – breast cancer narratives weren’t resonating with men. Males weren’t aware of the economic, social and emotional consequences breast cancer has, they merely talked about the physical symptoms. Because women need the support of their spouses, their fathers and their brothers; having men in the discussion and asking them how they feel about it – what they know about it – was crucial to gain real insights. The results of the awareness campaign was a 30% increase in breast cancer screenings.
Poet, media professional, activist, entrepreneur and former Miss Liberia, Patrice Juah, began by energising the audience through a woman chant that is often practiced in Liberia. To form part of her country’s reconstruction process, Patrice uses her platform as former Miss Liberia to empower young women and change Liberia’s image within the international community. Patrice has launched several education projects including a Miss Education awareness pageant whereby education ambassadors visit different communities championing causes and inspiring other young women. “Amidst all the chaos, there I was, trying to redefine what it means to be a beauty queen”. Moreover, to honour her mother’s work, Patrice also launched an educational foundation to empower and mentor young women who grew up in conflict, live in rural communities, and/or have no access to education. Presently, Patrice is working on a flagship program of the foundation titled “sexy like a book”. Undeniably an ambassador for her country, Patrice continuously seeks to dispel myths and narratives that people have on Africa and African women.
Laurence Fontinoy, originally from Belgium, knows what it means to be a founder in technology. She launched the app WOMB – a data science company focusing on reproductive health – that won the prize of ‘most innovative app’ in Spain. Laurence sought an app that understood the difficulties women face in having and producing children; an app that could leverage women to understand their bodies better and aid them in what is often a difficult and straining process. She spoke about the difficulties of balancing being a mother and a working woman: “You have to learn a lot about yourself, it’s a maturing process, then you have to re-establish yourself as a working mother”. She also urged more women to become bigger risk-takers and dive into the world of technology. She hit us with the fact that “only 8% of founders in technology are women” and that of those, “only 2% are getting the funding from venture capital” – a number she has helped push up, and wants to ensure it keeps rising.
The founder of Optimus Horizons, Margaret Chen, talked about the historic changes that she perceived in the transition of China into an economic powerhouse. She moved cross-continentally to Spain when she achieved the opportunity to work at Telefónica, and therefore did not feel this change domestically, but from the outside looking in. She highlighted how the transition has given women better chances: “Only 60 years ago, the life expectancy of women in China was 45 on average, now it’s around 78 years”. However, she emphasised that more equality is still needed, as a culture of “men are born to enjoy and study” still exists, while women do not genetically have that right. She also spoke about the difficulties that recent policies, such as the One Family One Child policy, have had on the way business is handled: “40-year olds do not know what the word ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ is, and what it means to share”. She allowed us to understand that so many things in China are improving and changing but that they are still behind on many things, including women’s empowerment.
What this cross-cultural panel taught us is that gender leadership across different cultures is as intersectional as feminism is. Culture plays a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of gender, however, across continents, across sectors, women face similar struggles. From redefining what it means to be a beauty queen, to leveraging on technology and understanding the politics and policies that hinder female advancement, it is only in standing together that inequality can be fought. “It is time to stand our ground, to tell the stories as they are and to be opinionated” concluded Maya.
Authors: Paula Koller and Paulina Capurro
Paula Koller is a Master’s student of International Relations and the President of IE University’s Global Transformation Club. She previously studied History and International Relations in London, but has always been an advocate for women and girls’ empowerment and gender equality. At IE, she is currently writing her Master’s Thesis on Rape as a Weapon of War, and focusing her case study on the Democratic Republic of Congo. With her club, she has recorded podcasts about gender equality, organised events focusing on women, and launched an initiative fighting for greater diversity in her university.