As someone who works in international development, I often participate in discussions about gender equality. We lament that there are too few female entrepreneurs, bank clients, political leaders and chief executives. We talk about the importance of including female voices and having women in leadership roles.
And yet when development conferences come together, it’s shocking how few women are invited to speak.
In the past year, I spoke at 22 conferences in 11 countries. That adds up to 296 panels of two or more people, plus 226 keynote, opening and closing speeches, for a total of 1,905 speakers. Unfortunately, only 390 — or 20 percent — of those speakers were women. Seven conferences had four or fewer female panelists. And one conference did not have a single woman on the stage.
Twenty percent is even worse than the statistics we in the development community bemoan. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where the Inter-American Development Bank does its work, women represent 23 percent of private-sector senior managers and 25 percent of legislators. Studies have shown that the gender gap in those countries negatively affects productivity and gross domestic product.
To help close the gap, we need to practice what we preach, rather than replicating Latin America’s “culture of machismo,” as the Economist recently put it. The more women are given the microphone, the more opportunities there will be for them to attain visibility and advance to leadership positions. And their advancement should help propel a virtuous cycle, influencing policies and decisions that generate a pipeline of female leaders for future panels.
It has been five months since I was last on an all-male panel, and I am committed to it never happening again. When conference organizers call, I now ask who else will be speaking and say that I won’t sign on until at least one woman is confirmed.
The most common defense I hear from organizers: We want to have the top experts and executives, and all the top experts and executives are men.
So I have started a database to respond to this false sense of certainty. When I attend meetings or travel for work, I bring back business cards and compile contact information of the successful women I meet. My colleagues know about my initiative and are attuned to share contacts, especially in fields such as project finance, capital markets and renewable energy where women are traditionally underepresented. This is not a token gesture to gender equality. It’s meant to be a testament to how many top-performing, thoughtful women work in international development and finance — and are captivating speakers.
Among those in the database, which is up to 350 names, is Romaine Seguin, president of UPS International, Americas. I served with her on a panel in Toronto about doing business in the Americas. The rest of us were men. And she outshone us all. She knew her material cold and spoke seamlessly, without notes and without taking her eyes off the audience. She was the only one of us who earned loud, spontaneous applause.
Other speakers I recommend include Maureen Hayden-Cater, former chief executive of First Global Bank in Jamaica; Giselle de Tejeira, chief financial officer of La Hipotecaria in Panama; and Inez Murray, chief executive of the Global Banking Alliance for Women, based in the United States. I’ve also invited several to participate in a speaker series that my office sponsors and promotes.
I’m not alone in this mission, and the problem is not limited to international development circles. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen suggested two years ago that men should refuse to participate on all-male panels at tech conferences. Tamara Cofman Wittes and Marc Lynch wrote in The Washington Post in January about the absence of women from Middle East policy events in Washington. And Owen Barder at the London School of Economics has been recruiting men to sign a pledge: “At a public conference I won’t serve on a panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel, not including the Chair.”
As David Rothkopf, who signed Barder’s pledge, humbly stated: “What I do doesn’t matter. But how high-profile global gatherings like the World Economic Forum choose to act does.”
I echo that sentiment. If my male colleagues and I keep participating in all-male panels, we will continue to do ourselves and our field a disservice. The timeless tradition of group-think has failed to solve our biggest development challenges. Incorporating more diverse perspectives, including those of women, offers the best chance of devising new and more effective approaches. And we can actually begin to address the gender inequality we profess to care so much about.