Women on the G20 promise: Dr Sam Collins and her delegates at Aspire

Dr Sam Collins of Aspire

Dr Sam Collins of Aspire

A trip to Aspire’s Connected Leadership event to find out what women think of the G20’s plan

When the G20 announced their recent intention to get 100 million more women into work by 2025, the news was accompanied by a picture of US President Barack Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sealing the agreement. The image of men in suits shaking hands on a plan is a telling illustration of the fact that women are indeed “the world’s most under-utilised resource”, most notably in the types of positions that get you an invite to a politico-economic summit. With an ageing population, a hangover from the financial crash and a perpetual need for growth, our leaders are turning towards the 43 per cent of female G20 citizens who are currently not in paid work in the hope of boosting our economies. Oh, and increasing equality, that too.

With female voices so undeniably underrepresented in the talks in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but wonder what members of the “resource” themselves have to say about the aspirations set out for them for the coming decade. To find out, I headed to the Aspire Connected Leadership event; a two-day training and networking session which is itself a summit of sorts. 300 senior level women convened there, brought together by Dr Sam Collins. A coach and female leadership expert who identifies herself as a “social entrepreneur”, Sam has made it her mission to empower women in the workforce to incite change.

“Getting more women into work is going to solve some of the world’s issues”, she believes. “It starts to change business, and business has a massive impact on the community. It’s a ripple effect.”

This is because according to Sam, women trailblaze organisational and cultural change which benefits both genders; from encouraging flexible working hours to focusing on solving world poverty. To help this ripple effect on its way, Aspire offers a substantial number of free places on the event to women who work for NGO’s. They also run a pro-bono mentoring programme which reaches across 80 different countries, matching women who work in the corporate field to those in the not-for-profit sector.

Phoebe Rison, programme manager at Christian Aid and second-time Aspire delegate, thinks that the G20’s plan is good news. “We find consistently in our projects that women who are given the opportunity to go into the labour market are more confident, they are more able to raise their voice; whether it’s religious expression, or political debate or household decision making. That’s where we see more equality coming into society.”

Nicky Springthorpe is head of communications and partnerships at Wells for India, a charity active in the poorest G20 country. To her, the goal of getting women into work seems a bit crude. “It doesn’t consider the multiple roles that women often have to play, and how in certain times in their life work might be the appropriate thing to do and at other times it might not be.” She would rather see initiatives to expand women’s ability to make independent life choices.

Although Sam is clearly in favour of a greater female contingent in the workforce, she thinks pushing 100 million more women into structures which are ill-suited to them “is potentially a disaster”. When she asks the Aspire delegates who is thinking of leaving their jobs, a sea of hands are raised. Not a good sign, considering one of the measures outlined by the G20 involves getting more women around the leadership table (and the fact that companies with more women on their boards outperform their rivals in return in sales by no less than 66 per cent1). My “buddy” for the day, a senior lawyer, tells me she should be making partner now, but doesn’t want to have to mould herself to the unfriendly and inflexible way of life at the top of her firm. She’s here for advice on how to change her organisation’s culture; one of the biggest items on the attendees’ agendas.

The lack of fit between the existing architecture of the labour market and women’s needs and aspirations also shows in the wording of the G20’s aims, says Sam, who thinks their emphasis on the economic benefits of the pact is “completely wrong.” “I mean it’s a nice idea, but are you just using us to make money? You have to appeal to women’s motivations of challenge, recognition, making a difference, and flexibility. These are the top four career motivations for women that we get year in year out in our surveys.”

Phoebe’s main concern is that women moving into new jobs may not be supported by programmes encouraging a shift in social norms. “Some of the women that I’ve spoken to in my work, in for example the Palestinian territories or Egypt or Irak, are going into the workforce and still have the majority of the caregiving role and the household responsibility. You have to make social changes that make it a more desirable outcome for women than giving them a second fulltime job.”

The international promise also fails to address pay. As part of the EU, Finland is currently the G20 country with the smallest pay gap for the same work2 . There, wage equality for the same job is estimated at 76 per cent. In Italy, it’s as low as 48. There may be little incentive to solve income inequality, as high growth rates have previously been linked to the suppression of women’s wages3. And then there’s the matter of job security once growth slows.

“When an economy contracts, normally the first people pushed out of the labour market are women,” Phoebe says. “That’s a major barrier; that even though women are let into the labour market, men are still possibly more valued within it.” I spot a parallel with the UK, where three times as many women as men became long-term unemployed in recent austere times 4.

Sam thinks the G20 should admit to these inequalities, and set out a plan to combat them. At the same time, women should be empowered to create change themselves. So what is it that needs changing, exactly?, I ask Sam when I catch up with her over the phone. As she starts to explain to me that corporations run on “a masculine power model”, I hear her son chiming in in the background, repeating: “Power model!”. Sam laughs. “He’s nodding! He’s six, right? I mean we’ve got a new generation coming up who are a bit different! But we’ve still got a dinosaur generation; let’s call them the PMS generation: Pale, Male, and Stale. They’re in this mode of competitive “power over”, and when women bring their skills and strengths of collaboration, authenticity, ethics, it’s seen as soft.”

But, as Sam’s own coach Gosia Gorna tells me: “We are in a process of change”. Two thirds of people think the world would be a better place if men thought more like women, according to a study which included eleven G20 countries, including the UK4. Not only that, but traits that the respondents thought of as “feminine”; such as being empathetic and expressive, were considered to be more important to effective leadership than those they categorised as “masculine”; for example being independent and decisive. Sam emphasises that both men and women possess masculine and feminine traits, and that both sets of skills are important in the workplace. The shifting balance is good news for everyone, though, Sam says.

“I think men are coming into an era where they also want change. Men are meant to be superman, and that’s a huge amount of pressure. I think men are going to breathe a sigh of relief and say: “I can be myself too”. I think it’s going to create a really authentic environment for both men and women.”

One of the measures outlined by the G20 is especially high on Sam’s own list: Helping women to set up their own businesses. “When women own businesses it makes a community a better place,” she thinks. Nicky agrees. Isn’t it a precarious way of getting women into paid work? “In developing countries women often have a greater opportunity to create cooperatives than men do,” Nicky answers. “There seems to be a real strength in the network. Maybe the vulnerability that women could be concerned about in setting up their own business can be offset by having a strong network.” This power of connection is something the more developed countries could learn from, she says, and it is exactly what Sam is trying to instill through the Connected Leadership events.

When Sam started her company, she was warned that people might think she was a feminist. Now, at this Aspire event ten years on, Sam uses the f-word publicly for the first time. “I think there are still some negative perceptions about feminism. The new feminism is all about world change.” Sam remembers a chat she had with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who told her that in talks about military budgets, she’s the one asking how the interventions will affect the soldiers’ families and the local communities. “She strongly believes that if she wasn’t at that table, that conversation would never be happening.”

Although it feels empowering to have Sam and Gosia tell us “you are the change”, it isn’t always easy to live your values, as Phoebe shares with me. With her husband working long hours on a much higher salary than her own, she isn’t sure what’s in store for her when they have kids. “My husband won’t suddenly be home at six o’clock to help me take care of them. He’s really caring, but he’s spent his whole life thinking he’s got to provide for a family, and he’s based his career on that. We suddenly have to look at ourselves and our own values in a way that you don’t expect to have to do in this country in this day and age. We’ve self-perpetuated all these things that we don’t really like.”

Change can come from making small adjustments, though. According to Sam, every action you take that is countercultural in your workplace is an activist move. “To go into your organisation and just ask: How much am I getting paid, how much are other people getting paid? Or if everyone stays until nine o’clock but you say at six o’ clock: “I’m going to go home,” you’re leading organisational change. ”

With that in mind, 2025 in the G20 could indeed look very different from the way it looks now. In Sam’s words: “If there’s a way to provide support for women and give them the opportunities to connect and collaborate, then it could be phenomenal. There is massive, amazing potential for women.”

1 Catalyst, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards, 2007

2 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2014

3 Stephanie Seguino, World Development, 2000

4 The Fawcett Society, 2013

5 John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, The Athena Doctrine, 2013

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