Staying Away from Clichés: Power Shift 2015 Tackles “Women and Markets”

Nope. No happy shopper stereotypes allowed at Power Shift 2015, even if the theme is Women and Markets.

Avoiding stereotypes and conventional thinking—that was the big challenge in planning a Women and Markets theme for Power Shift 2015.

A few years back, the Harvard Business Review published “The Female Economy.” The authors focused exclusively on how much women consume. Nothing about women and the capital markets.  No nod to the historic entry of female workers into the formal labor market.  Nothing about how gender affects global supply chains. Yet announcing that women are shoppers is hardly newsworthy. Marketing companies have known for decades that women are the world’s consumer engine.

Academic economists treat markets as something that exist only in an abstract landscape, where gender is an irrelevant triviality.  Yet this blinkered way of thinking has led to a global information structure that knew nothing of the economic lives of women until recently—and still struggles to understand.

At base, markets are an elaborate set of social agreements for exchanging the things we need or want. Exchange systems, therefore, are shot through with the same prejudices, inequalities, and exclusions that typify social life. To treat “markets” instead as if they were a set of purely mathematical equations, possessed of the impersonal logic of the cellular or orbital variety, has always struck me as dangerous.

We skirted these two chasms of conventional thinking as we planned Power Shift 2015. And, happily, some of the most respected institutions in the world, including some of the most powerful marketing companies, stepped up to help us put together an extraordinary agenda.

Power Shift opens officially with a reception at the Ashmolean Museum on the evening of November 8. Through the grapevine, I have learned that “Power Shifters,” who are becoming quite a community, like to meet up for dinner and even pub crawl together on that first night.  This year we will provide little enamel pins to be picked up at the reception, so that conference attendees can find each other at the nearby Lamb and Flag or the 13th century Turf Tavern or fresh and contemporary Jamie Oliver’s–or any one of the cool little restaurants and historic pubs that dot central Oxford.

Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Center, will open Power Shift 2015.

The next morning, November 9, the conference will open with a splash!  We are honored that Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, will open with a call to action for women’s economic empowerment, building on the resolve of the ITC’s path-breaking Women’s Vendor Exhibition and Forum.  Then, a Power Shift tradition follows: three provocative speeches will run in rapid succession, designed to shake out the easy thoughts and pose hard questions.  In past years, the Power Shift community has found this ritual an invigorating way to start, though I admit it is rather exhausting for the three speakers, who run from room to room giving the same speech to three breakout groups.  This year, the brave souls who have agreed to run this gauntlet are Amy Willard Cross, founder of the new BuyUp Index app; Markus Goldstein, development economist at the World Bank; and Allison Friedman, a leader at the Global Fund to End Slavery.

The three rapid-fire topics will reset expectations.  Amy Cross has invented a new app that uses publicly available data to rate brands according to their woman-friendliness. I like this idea because I have long felt women need to leverage their consumer power to push for gender equality in other domains.

Markus Goldstein will address the question of industry segregation. A common excuse made for economic inequality is that women are paid less, have less access to credit, and so on, because they stupidly choose to go into the wrong industries. Markus will talk about the phenomena behind industrial gender segregation and will share his research on what happens when women step over the line into a market where men dominate.

The term “slave market” conjures long ago images of (mostly) black men in chains. Yet today there are more slaves than ever in history, and 79% of them are female.

Human trafficking is the most horrific example we have of markets gone wrong.  Yet the fight against slavery has focused on rights and laws, not the economic inequalities that feed this trade, which preys mostly on females. Allison Friedman will explain the economic factors and the business practices that can help end this terrible cruelty.

As the day progress, offerings begin to turn more toward solutions.  Liz Bingham, Managing Partner at  Ernst & Young, will be on hand to present EY’s signature Growing Beyond Borders approach for entrepreneurs wishing to expand their businesses internationally (and EY will conduct small workshops afterward for those who are interested in learning more).  Christine Svarer, head of Women’s Economic Empowerment for CARE International, as well as Louise Nicholls, head of Responsible Sourcing, Packaging, and Plan A at Marks & Spencer and Dr. Stephanie Barrientos, the world’s leading expert on women in supply chains, will discuss issues surrounding women in the global supply networks.

The core challenge of this year’s Power Shift teaching case is to translate the ancient beading tradition of the Maasai for the American consumer market.

We will next proceed to another Power Shift ritual, the teaching case.  Each year, we develop a customized business school teaching case to be distributed to participants and taught for the first time at the Forum.  Those readers with business school experience will know that cases are a common pedagogical tool, but that there are very few cases available that address gender in business or feature women as protagonists.  The Power Shift cases help fill this gap (the Said School now has a a growing library of such cases). This year, the case will focus on the challenges faced by Walmart and Global Goods Partners in trying to bring the beaded jewellery created by the Maasai Women Development Organization  (MWEDO) to their vast consumer base.  The teachers will be our Dean, Peter Tufano, the new L’Oreal Chair of Marketing, Andrew Stephen, and me.

Late in the day, there will be another chance for casual conversations, followed by a short walk to the world’s most famous debating society, the Oxford Union.  Having a debate on a question related to the theme each year is another Power Shift tradition, always stimulating and sometimes hilarious.  At the end of the arguments, we vote for one side or another by the door we use to exit.  The results are announced at the formal dinner that follows immediately afterward.

In addition to her pioneering role in women’s philanthropy, Jacki Zehner has been a key player in the gender lens investing movement. Photo by George Frey

Our dinner this year will be at Balliol College, which has one of the most Harry Potter-esque dining halls in Oxford.  This dinner is always a highlight, with long benches, soft lighting, and forests of wine glasses and forks. This year, the after dinner speaker will be a real treat.  Jacki Zehner, inaugural President and CEO of Women Moving Millions, was also the first female trader invited into partnership at Goldman Sachs. She will give an unorthodox view of how philanthropy and investment can be used to support the economic empowerment of women.

Our opening speaker the next morning is a star.  I heard Kay Napier keynote at the Procter & Gamble alumni bash in Miami last May.  I was so impressed.  Widely admired for her heroic turnaround of Arbonne International, Napier is an elegant woman with a no nonsense style and dry wit. She told the story of her own leap of faith from the stable, rule-governed world of Procter & Gamble to the unmapped territory of a cosmetics company in financial trouble. At Power Shift, Kay will again tell her story and describe how Arbonne’s market approach helps women and supports families.

Immediately following, the Power Shift audience will buckle down into this year’s action item. Last year, we sent a petition to the United Nations asking that women’s economic empowerment be included in the new Sustainable Development Goals.  This year, we are working on a topic first broached by the International Council for Women’s Business Leadership:  does “the women’s economy” need branding and, if so, why and how?  The ICWBL, first formed under Secretary Hillary Clinton at the US State Department, is now at Georgetown University. The ICWBL has formed a short list of subcommittees to investigate key questions for the women’s economy–and the branding issue is one of those questions.

Each year we try to have an “action step” for Power Shift participants to take as a group. This year, we will begin strategizing the women’s economy as a branding proposition, with Interbrand leading us in a disciplined and professional process.

Interbrand, the world’s leading branding consultancy, has graciously agreed to collaborate with Power Shift to gather opinions from the Forum participants and then produce a report. Since the Power Shift audience is drawn from multiple sectors and from many countries, but all are engaged in some way in helping to empower women economically, we felt they could act, collectively, as an important expert opinion on this question.  There will be a survey as well as a series of focus groups, probably a discussion over the LinkedIn group, and, finally, a group poll at Power Shift in order to gather this input in a disciplined way.  Leading this effort will be Paula Oliveira, Executive Director at Interbrand.

Both the focus groups for the branding task and the EY workshops on business expansion will run alongside other sessions and will require individuals to sign up.

The sessions running through the second day present more new challenges in order to open our thinking toward innovative solutions.  I will write in more detail about each of these in separate posts, but here is an overview:

Small Things, Big Differences.  Empowering women through delivery of specially designed consumer goods was once a shocking idea, but it is now one whose time has come.  Betsy Teutsch, who has authored a new book about how inexpensive objects can help the very poor, will join with Sumana Hussain, who helps lead the new SPRING accelerator which engages entrepreneurs with African teens to produce products helpful to girls.

Honing in on “Empowerment.” Do we know “empowerment” when we see it? Believe it or not, this is a question that resists obvious answers. When research teams set out to define, track, and capture the impact of “women’s economic empowerment” interventions, a number of challenges bubble up. This brainstorming session will be led by two highly regarded experts, Mayra Buvenic of the UN Foundation and Markus Goldstein of the World Bank.

The Market for Families. Market forces are having an unprecedented effect on the most fundamental challenge for any economy: reproducing the population. We are lucky to have Michelle Goodwin, author of The Baby Market:  Money and the New Politics of Creating Families, and Steffen Zoller, CEO of Europe. Goodwin will discuss the market for technologies that provide babies to those who don’t have them; Zoller will talk about the world’s largest online care market, now available in 16 countries, which provides services for those who do.

Bringing Tradition to New Markets.  One of the toughest challenges for women’s economic empowerment is to bring the traditional crafts made by female artisans into accord with the tastes of the global market. Surprisingly, problems of production and pricing are often trumped by difficulties in design and branding. Three problem-solvers tell their stories of struggle in this daunting corner of the global market:  Charlotte Oades, Global Director of Women’s Economic Empowerment at Coca-Cola, Catherine Shimony and Joan Shifrin, co-founders of Global Goods Partners, and Ndinini Kimesera Sikar, honored as 2013 Woman of Courage for her work with the Maasai artisan membership of MWEDO.

Putting Safety First. Conventional economic thinking about markets thoroughly impersonalizes exchange. Yet, for hundreds of millions of women every day, the threat the market poses to physical safety makes economic participation a very personal matter indeed. From the factory workers of Juarez to the micro-entrepreneurs of rural Bangladesh to the commuters of New York, the threat of violence is a real barrier to market inclusion. Unilever, one of the world’s most far-reaching marketing companies, is taking a stand on this difficult issue.  Marcela Manubens, leader of this historic initiative, will be at Power Shift to tell us what they know and what they are doing about it.

Legal Rights and Economic Power.  There is a tricky paradox that falls between the traditional rights-based approach to equality and the economic empowerment strategy: in the real world, women’s lack of legal rights often significantly constrains their market participation–yet women often need money to claim their rights. The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law team is launching their newest report on the status of women’s business rights globally and will be joined at Power Shift by activists and advocates to discuss ways forward.

There will be a bookstand and a book signing at Power Shift, courtesy of Blackwell’s, Oxford’s historic bookshop.

At the end of the day, we will gather into a plenary session in the Nelson Mandela Theatre. Here, the Interbrand folks will conduct an electronic poll on the key questions emerging from the branding exercise.  The results of the poll and all the input to the question of marketing the women’s economy will be presented at the next Power Shift—in the context of the 2016 action step!

Finally, as is our continuing practice at Power Shift, we will take about 20 minutes to debrief, reflect, and make plans for the future.

Power Shift is an invitation-only event.  The available seats are limited because Oxford is a small place.  If you would like to apply to attend, please click here for more information and follow the “indicate your interest” tile in the upper right corner.


Power Shift: The Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy is sponsored by The MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth. The opening reception at the Ashmolean Museum is sponsored by Walmart. The gala dinner at Balliol is sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative

Recent Posts

For any media inquiries, please e-mail

Sign up below to receive occasional updates:

© 2020 by Double X Economy, LLC