Fri, Oct 24, 2008 - Page 9 News List

A liberating women’s forum

The Women’s Forum is taking off in popularity because it offers an alternative to the masculine setting of Davos — with speeches from female leaders that don’t conform to male stereotypes



Tory Frame, an Irish-born partner in the London office of the consulting group Bain & Co, used to always try to keep gender out of business.

“I always thought I had to act like the male partners to get to be a partner,” she said. “I didn’t have any female role models, and I had a very specific view of leadership.”

But in 2005, she attended the first Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society along with about 500 other women, and it changed her, she said last weekend.

“I came here and I heard loads of women speaking in their own way — clear leaders, but without conforming to that male stereotype, and it encouraged me to be myself, to use empathy and humor,” said Frame, who has an MBA from Harvard. “It had a very big impact on me. I saw that there are ways to be very powerful, but also warm.”

Barbara Ngouyombo is a young entrepreneur, a systems engineer from Reunion, the French island in the Indian Ocean, who has started a company in London to provide computerized health information for travelers requiring daily care.

“Usually I’m not so comfortable just among women,” she said. “But this is different. There’s so much diversity here. We’re all from different backgrounds and places.”

The annual meeting of the Women’s Forum, which ended here on Saturday and included 1,200 women, is modeled on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the famous global talkathon. The Women’s Forum offered three days of lectures, panels, brainstorming sessions and guided conversations on the issues of the moment: the global economic meltdown, the crisis of leadership, the US presidential election, foreign policy, environmental problems, China, Russia and India.

Well-known politicians and speakers, both women and men, came from all over the world, with an emphasis on Europe but also including figures from the US like Jeffrey Garten, a Yale economist, and Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute.

There were also workshops on specific challenges faced by women, to discuss how women could be most effective in science, politics, education, corporate life and the media. There were panels on how, as Bettina Goetzenberger, the manager of a Spanish legal services company, said, “to think bigger, and how to be less modest in asking for money and investment.”

And there were sessions that featured prominent women. This year, they included Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate and freed hostage; the designer Diane von Furstenberg; the sailor Ellen MacArthur; the exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin; the venture capitalist Molly Ashby; and French Cabinet ministers like Fadela Amara, who is in charge of coordinating plans for the racially mixed and poor Parisian suburbs, and Anne-Marie Idrac, responsible for foreign trade.

As so often in France, earnest talk of global poverty, child abuse and the dangers of the economic crisis for philanthropy was mixed with lavish meals, Champagne and espresso provided by corporate sponsors in the resort setting of Deauville, on the Normandy beaches.

There were the usual mixed messages, with participants given expensive anti-aging cosmetics and offers of makeovers and photographic portraits from corporations seeking to attract successful potential customers. There was Cartier, the French jewelry company, which sponsors a global competition for young female entrepreneurs like Ngouyombo. Five winners receive US$20,000 each and a year of business coaching from Cartier, management consultants McKinsey & Co, and Insead, the business school with campuses in France and Singapore.

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