Real Leaders

My Lessons on Women at a Male-dominated Conference in Dubai

Since 2012, the United Nations has recognized October 11 as ‘International Day of the Girl,’ in an effort to improve the health, education, and well being of women and girls everywhere.

The magnificence and irony of this day, for me, was recently highlighted by the message I heard in Dubai on October 11, 2016 while attending the Global Restaurant Leadership Conference.

This educational networking conference included highly successful industry leaders from East to West.  Although there were a number of women attending, the audience was overwhelmingly male underscoring the importance of continuing these discussions.

I attended the “Global Impact of Women” forum with my husband, who along with the rest of the audience, was being challenged to actively work towards improving the balance of women at the upper echelons of their respective companies. A panel of five highly accomplished, insightful and encouraging women convened, offering positive messages about their experiences and valuable takeaways for both men and women in the audience. I was encouraged to see hundreds of men showing up to this forum, implying personal energy and interest to focus resources and implement change. 

The panel comprised of Hattie Hill, moderator, Dawn Sweeney, Smita Jatia, Kathleen Ciaramello, and Sylvia Metayer all of whom work tirelessly for their respective organizations to promote business first and foremost.  The GRLC agenda was packed with topics and speakers addressing industry growth and worldwide partnerships but this particular panel presented a different “ask” to their peers, a bit of a “what you can do now” challenge to continue to promote women into executive leadership roles.

The speakers’ messages resonated with me because I was one of five female graduates in Mechanical Engineering from Vanderbilt University in 1985. At that time, there were few women in the field. Even more rare were female role models in leadership. At this snapshot in time, it was personally rewarding to quantify the changes over 30 years and see fantastic growth in women’s opportunities and accomplishments.  They are real and significant. To be certain, a marked improvement has occurred since I left the workforce in 1995 and the future is even more energizing.  Two specific, yet relatively simple, concepts were shared this day that can maintain momentum for women in leadership.

One was introduced by Sylvia Metayer, CEO of Worldwide Corporate Services for Sodexo. She encouraged people to utilize “Reciprocal Mentoring,” which she described as developing two-way transfers of experiences in the workplace. Everybody in a leadership role can gain valuable insight from others around them, regardless of rank or gender. This struck a chord for me as I have tended to look at mentoring as a top down teaching relationship, but this approach demonstrates that mentoring can and should involve a level of equality.

This shift in mindset, that we can all learn from each other, not just from our leaders, not only empowers women in the workplace, but it can also translate into a measurable impact on an organization’s bottom line.  Sylvia noted that research shows profitability increases in companies with more female leaders.

Another strategy was the “Power of Three” introduced by Kathleen Ciaramello, President of National Food Service for The Coca-Cola Company. She explained the value added by promoting not just one woman, but a second and third to management teams. One woman joining an executive team is undoubtedly the starting point for adding diversity, but there are exponential benefits when a second and then a third are included.  Women can then develop a stronger team approach gathering ideas and consensus with the support of their peers, a strength in numbers concept.

The individual and collective efforts of men and women change the face of business. Women are having an increasing impact on the global economy, and while more and more opportunities are opening up for women every day, we still have a long way to go when it comes to including women in leadership roles.

The strategies shared at this forum can make dramatic differences in that effort. It was inspirational to hear these presenters on “International Day of the Girl” – brilliant, influential business people from all corners of the world participated in important conversations about empowering women. However, in order to continue building on the progress made, we must all commit to putting strategies such as “Reciprocal Mentoring” and the ‘Power of Three” into practice.


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