No more “pale, male and stale!” That’s what charismatic Dr. Margaret Aderin-Pocock, one of the world’s leading space scientists, told the crowd at the London Women in the World Summit today.
Hosted by Meredith Kopit Levien, Executive Vice President & Chief Revenue Officer of The New York Times Company, Dr. Aderin-Pocock was joined by diverse powerful leaders from around the world to address a question on the minds of working women everywhere: Does it take women leaders to make women leaders?
“Troubling patterns” show that women drop out of the workforce or get stuck before reaching senior management status, Levien said. The focus of the past few years has been on how help women push past these barriers to achieve greatness — whether it’s advising women to “lean in” to their roles or pushing companies for better paternal leave, more sick days and flexible schedules. According to the panel, the solutions start with boldness, representation and role models — but also require men to use their power to create opportunities for women to succeed. Education also plays a key role.
On the panel was Sharon Doherty, who pioneered one of the first global maternity policies in the world at Vodafone — 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, then six months of a reduced work schedule afterwards, a scale matched only by the United Nations. To secure women’s maternity leave on a global scale was a short-term investment, but offered long-term results, she said, calling maternity in general “practical” part of women’s lives. She’s proud of the “enlightened” men in her company who saw the need and listened to her ideas, and believes more men need to use their space for positive change. Only when companies hit about 30 percent of representation do workplaces start to see what feminine and masculine traits bring to the table, she argued.
“Most men look at their daughters and think, “I want the world to be different when you grow up’,” Doherty said. “Those men who believe in gender equality have to be with us.”
Panelist Halla Tomasdottir stressed that women are too obedient, urging them to rise up and push back. When she was the CEO of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, she warned banks of the pending crisis and was ignored. There was too much “sameness” and not enough diversity around the decision-making tables — and in Iceland, a country that ranks number one in closing the gender gap. “Not that masculine values are bad, but in excess, they can be dangerous,” she explained.
Tomasdottir founded her own company, Sisters Capital, because the “urge to work for my own set of values kept getting stronger and stronger.” Nothing works when women are not at work, she said, citing a strike of Icelandic women — everyone from stay-at-home mothers to those in the workplace — 40 years ago that really turned the country on its head. They disobeyed it paid off, so it’s important that women keep practicing boldness. “We don’t want to become men in skirts!” Tomasdottir laughed.
Dr. Aderin-Pocock also stressed that the world is capable of change, citing the status of medicine 150 years ago, when nearly no women were practicing. But first, girls must see themselves in these roles. Men have said to her, “You’re black and female, what are you doing in science?” Luckily, she laughed, the male “dinosaurs” at the top are on their way out. She’s even working to help train women to prepare for television interviews so that when the time comes to represent the field to the world, women are confident in doing so. “
We need to be grabbing more opportunities, seeing ourselves differently,” she stressed – especially in STEM fields. Science affects women’s daily lives, so it needs to be normalized and made to seem accessible. Role models are key, she said. “Every single one of us in this room is a role model,” Aderin-Pocock told the crowd. “Women can recognize women’s problems and solve them very efficiently.”
Doherty agreed. “Women who get into senior roles, we need to put a hand down and pull other women up,” she said.
Also on the stage sat Tessa Ross, whose work includes films like Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, and The Last King of Scotland. In explaining the male-dominated world of filmmaking, she said that it’s easier for men’s films to get made because big studios back them, but for the higher-ups to risk can be a beautiful thing. “You have to protect women from great risk, but you also have to back them, because that’s probably where the great work will come,” she said.
Again, she explained that representation in her field is key. Seeing diverse women lead in filmmaking and other at other skills, Ross said, “makes young women think it’s possible.”
The panel emphasized the importance of education for girls and women, which Dr. Aderin-Pocock called a “great leveler.” It raises everyone’s expectations, she said. Tomasdottir also stressed the importance of teaching gender balance at an early age. Equality starts early, as our understanding of gender roles are formed by age eleven, she said. Understanding balance can change the world.