Power Shift Event Brims with Potential

It was as if I were standing in the lobby of our collective dream, waiting to receive guests who had so far only been imagined.

Our program sessions had titles like “top down, bottom up” and “hands up, hands down.” The one that best distilled the spirit of the event, though, was this one: reaching across.

Last Monday morning, poised at the door of the Said School, we didn’t know how the Power Shift conference would unfold.  I suppose it could have been a failure, though we assured ourselves enough planning had been done that only a true disaster–a cyclone, a tsunami–could undo the whole thing now. No, the fear was more that it would fall flat, that the people we invited would not, as we imagined they would, share our passion and our hope.

And then they came.  Two hundred women and men, from all over the world, from every sector of society, yet all the same in their determination to support women’s economic inclusion. The sum of that energy could be felt all over the building–not just in the lobby, but down the corridors, in the meeting rooms, even upstairs in the offices. Everyone in the School knew they had arrived.

In the sessions, the Power Shift group focused intensely on problems and questions that have haunted us all–but we have never before had a chance to discuss them together. It was simply brilliant to hear people from as widely divergent perspectives as Coca-Cola and OECD, Cambridge University and Walmart, Procter & Gamble and Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil and First Book, engage with how to measure, finance, evaluate, and support women in their efforts to be included as actors in the world economy.

What were the highlights?  There were so many.  I loved Wu Qing, the famous women’s rights activist, teaching us through Chinese writing from the stage of the Nelson Mandela Theatre.  It touched me when I saw people leaning over their chairs, keen to hear what Muna Abusulayman, the Saudi media celebrity, would say next.  As a scholar, I enjoyed the arguments flying about the room in the session on measurement.  As a woman, I was shocked by the information presented in the session on finance.

But I admit the moment that will always sing for me came at the end of Dame Stephanie Shirley’s after dinner speech at Somerville College.  The room itself was grand–huge, with arched wooden beams and massive portraits of the women who had led the college–but lit intimately with candles all around.  We were all exhausted, is the truth of the matter.  So many had just flown in from far away.  And the day had been intense.  But Dame Stephanie is an iconic leader, in both business and philanthropy.  So there we were, even posing questions for the roving mike, despite our fatigue.  Then, as she closed the discussion and said “thank you,” Dame Stephanie said she would donate the proceeds from her book-signing the next day to the Power Shift Forum.

My breath was taken away.  It wasn’t the money.  It was the meaning of the gesture.  It felt like our dream had been validated by the one person most capable of blessing it.  Like Glinda the Good had just told us we had the power all along.  I wouldn’t trade anything for that moment.

The next day at lunch, the coffee-cupping and chocolates had everybody buzzing and we sold a lot of books.  That, too, was a great moment, not just for the authors (though I am glad they were happy), but because the group seemed to come together as a social unit during that hour.  People were passing cards and comparing chocolates, sipping coffee as instructed by the expert who came from Peet’s just to show us how.  It was so cool.  Was that the highlight?

No, maybe it was the last session. Interestingly, this was the one session our dreams had failed to form.  We had changed our plans for the format multiple times, had collectively wrung our hands over the feeling it was not going to come together.  Then, the morning of the last day, we all agreed that the group had gelled so well, had so much to say, the thing to do was simply to turn it over to them.

Not everyone stayed.  You always know that will happen, especially when so many have come a long way and have planes to catch.  But nearly everyone did (Elizabeth counted, as we knew she would).  And you could see that people were invested in the outcomes.  A momentum had emerged that would carry us forward.  Here is what I heard them say:

1.  There is a serious need for more economic data that is disaggregated by gender.  This will require some definitional refinement and a concerted effort to reach remote places. But it must be done.  Specifically, household level data hides too much inequality–it is not good enough.

2.  The effort to empower women will require radical collaboration among representatives from academia, government, the private sector, and civil society.  A safe space must be made for them to share what they learn, including the lessons from failure.

3.  There must be a critical rethinking of many concepts we take for granted.  Greater clarity is essential.  But one of places that must be rethought is the juncture between business and policy.  To make progress, these sectors must cooperate.  This will require readjusting many long held prejudices.

4.  There is a disturbing gender skew in the availability of capital for which the financial community must be held accountable.  Means to bring funding in line with gender equality goals–something well beyond microfinance–must be found.

Next year’s Power Shift Forum, it was agreed and announced, will focus on finance, but will include special attention to the potential for new technologies to better deliver fair funding.  That Forum, scheduled for May 28-29, 2014, in Oxford, will seek to expand the scope of the group to include, specifically, other academic disciplines and more foundations.

We  agreed that we want to have a collective voice, to be a pressure group, even to become a movement.  It was an electric moment, one that I would not have dared to dream.

My humblest thanks to all those men and women who walked through the door on Monday morning, who shared our dinner at Somerville College, who argued through sessions on hard issues, and who joined their agenda to ours on Tuesday afternoon.  Right now, tired as I know we all are, May 2014 seems too far away. There is so much potential to be realized.

Power Shift is an invitation only event, but intends to be inclusive of a variety of voices. To request invitations to next year’s Power Shift Forum, write wwef@sbs.ox.ac.uk.

1 Comment

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