What Do The Most Powerful Women In The World Worry About?

Photo: aul Morigi/Getty Images.
It can be frustrating to think that in 2015, we still need a separate leadership conference for women. But there’s a reason why the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit (MPWS) is still a major annual event. Just look at the numbers: Only 4.4% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are female, and two (Ellen Kullman at DuPont and Carol Meyrowitz at T.J. Maxx) announced they were stepping down from their jobs just a week before the conference.

In a recent study from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, 73% of CEOs acknowledged that having more women in the C-Suite is important, but 56% admitted they don’t have any formal program in place to promote diversity. And while this study shows that these same CEOs think they will achieve gender parity in their executive ranks by 2030, findings from a study from the Center For American Progress suggests that won’t happen until 2085. Basically, we have to wait until our granddaughters are professionals before things will be fair at work.

“Until 50% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, until there’s parity on boards, in media, and in government, these conferences have to continue to happen,” argues Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods, who has been attending the conference for several years and considers the friendship and networks she’s developed here to be essential to her success.

MPWS is inspirational, but unlike so many female-focused events, there is little talk of work-life balance or how to overcome imposter syndrome. Granted, you could argue the women in attendance have already made it, and now that they are sitting in a room filled with 450 like-minded individuals, they are grabbing the chance to make the most of this rare event to discuss (and find solutions to) serious work and social issues. What do they talk about? You. These women are worried about your success, and they want to see the next generation have an easier time than they did. Ahead, just a few of their best thoughts and ideas from the 2015 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit.

We Need To Pay It Forward

Clara Shih, cofounder of Hearsay Social, a social media management company, thinks there is a simple solution to the lack of women in leadership roles: Successful men and women need to step up and help young female employees. She spoke recently to the executive team at a publicly traded company and encouraged them to do just that:

“If every single [person on] the executive team take[s] on even just one woman to mentor, a year from now, the company is going to be in a much better place in terms of having developed female talent,” she said. “And individually each of those women will be much further along.” Shih’s been lucky to have supportive networks — from Stanford alumni to former Google coworkers — that have helped her along the way, and she believes in paying it forward.

“I mentor, I advise, I’ve angel-invested in a half-dozen female-founded companies,” she said. “We all have to do our part.”

Silicon Valley Is Still Pretty Sexist

Shih admits that her positive experiences are sadly rare. Silicon Valley is still very much a boys’ club, and there are countless examples of discrimination and biases. In the session on how to join a board, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and a member of the Starbucks board, shared a disturbing conversation she had with a CEO (who runs a big tech company) after he met with a big Silicon Valley investor to get advice on how to build a successful board. Hobson agreed with everything the investor suggested — until the end, when he told the young CEO he needed “window dressing," meaning a woman or minority. When Hobson finished her story at MPWS, the crowd audibly gasped, and her fellow panelist simply said, “That is so unenlightened.”

This is an incident that happened two months ago. And it’s just one in a long list of depressing anecdotes about sexism in Silicon Valley. But most of the time, the discrimination isn’t so blatant. That’s the bigger problem: How do we deal with the more implicit bias when hiring managers don’t even realize they are discriminating?

Technology Can Solve (A Lot Of) Our Problems

Laura Mather recently launched Unitive, a platform that companies can use to prevent unconscious bias in the hiring process. When you’re not choosing candidates based on arbitrary criteria (the sports teams they like or the bars they hang out in), you widen the talent pipeline, Mathers argues.

“I don’t believe it’s scalable to go and talk to all of the white men out there and tell them to cut it out,” she said. “I think it’s only scalable to start by bringing more diversity into the ranks, promoting more diversity up through the ranks, and the problem will then solve itself.”

This is the second start-up that Mather has founded (the first, cyber-security firm Silver Tail Systems, helped her land on Fast Company’s Most Creative Entrepreneurs list in 2012), and she is very open about the biases she’s faced along the way. When she introduced herself during the big welcome session at the start of the MPWS, there was an excited murmur that pulsed through the audience. Clearly, there is a need to fix this systemic problem, and Mather believes that technology is the solution.

It’s Time To Reevaluate What We Look For In A Leader

Technology might help fix the hiring process, but there’s also a need to reconsider what we look for in leaders. Often, women are told to "act like men," but that can feel really unnatural, or worse, come across as inauthentic. Peggy Johnson, EVP of partnerships and acquisition strategy at Microsoft, strongly believes in the importance of supporting and championing hard workers who don’t display typically celebrated leadership qualities.

“I remember being told, ‘We like your work, but you need to speak up more in meetings,’” Johnson said. “And I thought, Well, you do hear from me. I don’t always speak up in a big room, but I always let you know my opinion one-on-one. I tried to start speaking up, banging my fist on the table [to get attention]. But it was so inauthentic for me. It never ended well. At some point in my career, I said, ‘This is nuts; I’m not listening to this advice anymore, and I’m going to embrace who I am.’”

That personal experience has led Johnson to be wary of traditional performance reviews that only reward employees who fit certain criteria. “I would say, broadly, we need to look at leadership attributes as more than just being an assertive, independent thinker,” she argued, “The best teams I’ve ever been on are the most diverse. It’s not just about ethnic diversity; it’s about having diverse personalities.”

It’s All About Hard Work

How did these women became some of the most powerful people in the world? They worked their butts off. The theme of hard work came up again and again over the course of the three-day conference — particularly, the need for women to work harder than men.

During her speech on Monday evening, New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik related the story of how she became the youngest woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives:

“Nothing replaces hard work,” she told the crowd. "This is something I was taught as a young girl… My dad used to say, ‘Elise, don’t tell me how smart you are; tell me how hard you work.’ As each of us meet with young women, I think it’s important to be honest with them. Women have to work harder. We have to juggle different aspects of our lives. We have different challenges that men may not face. I always tell women: You have to be willing to put in the hours, and you have to be willing to work harder.”

We Need To Lead With Purpose

It’s not just about supporting those already in the workforce; it's about looking ahead and helping those young girls who don’t even realize they have the skills to take them all the way to the top. Michelle Obama, the special guest speaker on the final night of the conference, appealed to the crowd for commitment to her #62MillionGirls campaign:

“We need to be these girls’ network," she said. "We need to do for them what so many women did for us — women who fought so we could walk through those classroom doors and down those halls of power and into those C-Suites. This is what it truly means to be leading with purpose.”

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