Miriam Grobman Consulting sat down with its French-Brazilian partner, Gwendoline de Ganay, to learn about her previous experience as a Content and Program Officer for the prestigious Women's Forum for the Economy and Society.
What's the objective of this conference/ concept behind it?
The Women’s Forum ("WF") is a for-profit organization that organizes yearly global and regional meetings to address economic and social issues with a women’s perspective. It has been called “the Davos of women”. Its motto is “building the future with women’s vision”. It’s a place for women CEOs and leaders from all walks of life to get together to discuss the great issues of our time. What’s very interesting is that most of the participants work in male-dominated environments and are used to being the only women in the room, may it be a boardroom, a government cabinet, etc., and suddenly for three days they find themselves surrounded by other such women. I really think that on a conscious or subconscious level, this is one of the things they most enjoy about the event because it makes them feel comfortable and at ease.
How and why did you get involved with the Women's Forum?
I worked at the WF from 2008 to 2011. I joined the company because a former mentor offered me to join her. They say you shouldn’t pick a job but rather pick a boss. That’s what I did. In fact, before joining the company I knew almost nothing on gender issues in the workplace or women’s leadership.
Caption: Gwendoline at the Women's Forum Global Meeting, 2010.
Do you think that the conference being majority women impacted the tone of the event and/or the content of the discussions?
Regarding the tone, I think that because of the women majority, the participants felt more comfortable in expressing their “feminine” side, behaving and talking like women, rather than trying to conform to a male model. One superficial example of that is that they would dress in vivid colors and dresses, not the traditional “suit”/ business attire.
Regarding content, given that the WF aims to represent another voice on societal issues, I believe it gave more space to alternative approaches. For example, we talked about social entrepreneurship and tried to include the young generation.
Caption: Women's Forum Global Meeting in 2010: A plenary session on the topic of "Change in business - What do we need now for true innovation? "moderated by Moira Forbes with speakers Barbara Ann King (Head of Investments, Barclays Stockbrokers London), Anne Lauvergeon (CEO of Areva France) and Xin Zhang (CEO Soho China) .
What role did men play in the conference and the organization?
You might be surprised to hear this but some of the strongest advocates of the initiative since day one were men. For instance, Carlos Ghosn the CEO of Renault Nissan is an active board member, his company was a financial partner of the WF and he spoke at every global meeting. Another example is Bruno Vinay who was the male COO of the Women’s Forum when I was hired and really had a vision for what the WF was trying to achieve. There were also a fair number of men working in the company.
Of the men present at the conference, some were only there because their company was a commercial partner. They were sometimes in a sales-mode at first but very quickly they started shifting into a more passive listening and learning mode. Many found themselves surprised by what they learned in the conversations and in the sessions. I think that for many men it was a transformational experience. For some it was the first time they experienced being a minority, so it was as if tables were turning and they could suddenly feel what many women feel when they go to work in a male-dominated environment.
What would you say to someone who is considering attending the WF (next one is taking place in Dubai in February, 2016)?
They say a conference is successful if you have: learned one new thing, made one new friend and met one potential business contact/ partner/ client. I really believe that the WF keeps those three promises.
How did this engagement shape you as a leader and impact your professional path?
Before working at the WF I had never seen myself as “a woman” but rather as a person. I had never thought that I would have to make different career decisions or have a different attitude in the workplace due to my gender. But after seeing all the data, hearing all the testimonies of women, including some of the most powerful women in the world, I slowly realized that there was in fact a real issue, and that in a sense I was lucky to be introduce to it earlier rather than later.
Many women CEOs, for instance, told us that they had always been annoyed by gender-focused initiatives or discussions, and were against the idea of quotas, until the day they realized down the road that they were often the only woman left in the room (in their organization, in the C-Suite). They said that when they became aware of that, they went back and tried to change their organizations’ culture and implement the very initiatives they had been criticizing. Hearing them admit that in hindsight was very enlightening to me.
Caption: Christine Lagarde given the keynote speech at Women's Forum Global Meeting in Deauville, France. 2010
Another thing that I learned was how women could sabotage themselves by not “leaning in” enough (even though the term wasn’t used at the time). When facing a professional challenge or opportunity, studies show that women tend to reason things like “this job is not for me” or “I’m not sure I could do that” and that makes them give up on opportunities. Since I became aware this issue, when mentors of mine recommended me to do an MBA and I replied “I’m not sure an MBA is the right fit for me” (mostly out of fear) I fought my initial reaction and actually pursued my MBA. The same thing happened before starting my company in Brazil. I pushed through the discomfort and took on this great challenge. And I am really glad I did.
Gwendoline, thank you so much for sharing all these insights with us. Can you tell us about what you are working on these days?
Three years ago I moved to Brazil and created my company. I consult organizations on disruptive trends such as sustainability, diversity and collaborative models.
My clients include Brazilian, as well as foreign, companies. My services include impact assessment, partnerships development, project management, organization of workshops with stakeholders and redesigning the value chain.
You can learn more about Gwendoline here.