NewCo Shift
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NewCo Shift

Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Shouldn’t They Also Hold Up Half the Program at a Major Business Conference?

Davos, conferences, and how to change the dialog for the better.

The partial result of my count of Davos speakers this year

Like many business-minded folks this time of year, I’ve been monitoring the news out of Davos, where the World Economic Forum holds its annual soiree. The coverage of this year’s event is of course framed in the dramatic news of the day: Brexit, Trump’s ascension to power in the United States, and the rise of anti-globalism worldwide. Had Trump and Brexit not won in 2016, I imagine Davos would be full of stories about climate change, corporate responsibility, automation, AI, and the realities of a post-industrial economy (that’s been a major focus on the WEF’s content on Medium, for the most part).

Instead, it seems “Davos Man” is having something of an identity crisis. Long the bastion of global free trade and neoliberalism, the World Economic Forum appears uncertain how to tackle what seems to be a genuine shift in the very structure of capitalism itself.

I’ve got one very simple idea for how to address this dilemma: Bring more women to the table. A lot more. Woman comprise roughly 50 percent of the world’s population, but the average percentage of women delegates at the World Economic Forum broke 20 percent for the first time ever just this year. And the WEF is actually proud of that number, the result of active work on their part, according to Quartz.

The speaker lineup for Davos is also dominated by men. A quick sample of the hundreds of speakers shows roughly 77 percent of the lineup are male. Like it or not, what we project when we put people on stage is an idealized version of the world we want to create. When the most prestigious business event in the world struggles to break 25 percent female speakers, how can we wonder why the world isn’t finding fresh ideas?

I feel Davos’ pain when it comes to confirming amazing women speakers for a high-end event. When your initial qualification is “founder, CEO, or senior leader” at a major organization, you’re already playing with at least one hand tied behind your back. Women hold a paltry 14 percent of senior leadership positions in the United States, and it’s far worse in other countries. And for whatever reason, women tend to demur far more than men when offered the opportunity to strut their stuff on stage. In my experience, when you ask ten men to speak, around five or six of them will say yes. Ask ten women, and you’ll usually get three or four to agree.

But change requires proactive elbow grease. For the first ever Shift Forum next month, I decided to try to get to gender parity in the lineup we just announced. And I’ll admit, as a long time producer of technology and business events, it was not easy to do. But we’re damn close. As of today, 49 percent of the leaders on stage next month are women (a few more will be announced next week). In my prep discussions with this amazing group of leaders, I’ve gleaned extraordinary insights on the current and future state of business, technology and policy. I have no doubt the program will be more insightful, more challenging, and more thought provoking because they’re coming.

Here are just a few of the remarkable women we’re welcoming to the stage next month:

On Day One (Feb 6th) we open with Anne Finucane, the Vice Chair of Bank of America, who will address not only the financial crisis, but how BofA is changing its internal culture, and its approach to its business, as a result of that crisis. We continue with Adena Friedman, the new CEO of Nasdaq, and Janet Napolitano, the President of the University of California system, and former head of Homeland Security. That evening, our dinner speaker is also an extraordinary woman who has lived at the very top of the US political power structure, but we can’t announce her until after the Trump inauguration.

Day Two features Rachel Whetstone, who rose to running all of policy and comms for Google before moving to Uber in a similar role. We’ll hear about healthcare policy from Aetna President Karen Lynch, biotech startups from Emily Leproust, CEO of TwistBio, and round out the morning with Y-vonne Hutchinson, the founder of ReadySet, Kelly Jensen from the California Academy of Sciences, author Arjanna van der Plas, and Rose Broome, the CEO of HandUp. In the afternoon we feature filmmaker Robin Hauser, Schwab EVP Neesha Hathi, Adobe CCO Donna Morris, Walmart Foundation President Kathleen McLaughlin, Hint founder Kara Goldin, Brandless founder Tina Sharkey and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker.

On Day Three, we welcome the AI smarts of Bloomberg Beta’s Shivon Zilis and IBM’s Francesca Rossi, the policy intelligence of Global Policy Solutions’ Maya Rockeymoore, CNN’s Rana Foroohar, and Google’s Chanelle Hardy, the manufacturing smarts of Local Motors’ Elle Shelley, and the finance acumen of Julie Hanna of Kiva and Debbie Hopkins, most recently the Chief Innovation Officer of Citi and CEO of Citi Ventures. We round out the half day with Alison Lewis, the CMO of J&J, and Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, Ca.

Oh, and we have some pretty amazing men too.

So to those who say it’s impossible to bring parity and new thinking onstage, I say, come to the Shift Forum and see it for yourself. It’s going to be an incredible three days!

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