Where are the Women Leaders?
My first experience at the Annual CEO Round Table Conference in Colombo
“I am speaking at the Annual CEO Round Table” at Colombo, and partners are invited. Would you like to go?”, my husband had announced. I jumped at the opportunity, thinking that I would get to meet and mingle with some impressive people, listen to some interesting CEO talks and learn something, while enjoying the free stay at the Taj Samudra. Maybe enjoy a walk on the beach if time permits.
I packed my bags with attire suitable for a corporate event. Off we went to Colombo from Singapore. While on the way to the hotel from the airport, I saw one WhatsApp group created on my phone with the name IMA CEO Retreat Spouses. The Admin was Nirupama Shekhar. I wondered if she was the same Niru who was my batchmate and hostel mate in Lady Shri Ram College. As it turned out, she was. So, my life was set! I had found an old friend, who was the chief in charge of the event. What more could I ask for? I was beginning to feel less awkward as the tag-along spouse! I had found a friend in my own account.
What took me by real surprise is when the time came for registration for the event. I learned that there was a separate registration for spouses at the 7th Floor Presidential Suite at 4.30 PM. I went with much anticipation for the meet and greet. Here was a collection of some 45 women, spouses of the CEOs who had come for the conference. The Agenda was entirely around shopping, sight-seeing for the women in the room. A presentation was made by Barefoot, a handloom store in Colombo about their products. A visit to the same store was on the program schedule too.
This was my first experience. I must be honest, while I enjoyed the free holiday experience. I was left with a mixed bag of feelings. There was something inside me which very much wanted to be a part of the real CEO conference and not just the shopping fun planned for the CEO’s partners!
I did manage to excuse myself out of the tea tasting workshop to attend a session by Ravi Venkatesan, ex Microsoft Chairman. I had heard great things about him from my husband who is himself an ex-Microsoft veteran with a 14-year long stint. Now here is the 2nd surprise I got. In a crowd of 70+CEOs sitting in that room, there were just 2 female CEOs and a few other women who were part of the organizing team.
Ravi’s talk generated a lot of philosophical questioning amongst the CEOs on topics such as finding the true ‘purpose’, or ‘self-actualization’ on Maslow’s Hierarchy and so on and so forth. Most people in the senior echelons of the corporate world felt the need to rise above the current level and be involved in something more meaningful, purposeful and maybe a bigger cause. Something larger than themselves.
Sitting in that room, I could not help but wonder if this was a one-sided conversation taking place in the room full of men, whose spouses were busy with shopping and sightseeing, while the men discussed issues such as finding a bigger purpose.
I could not help but wonder about a what-if scenario. What if there were an equal number of women CEOs sitting in that room. Or what if there were an equal number of men in the spouse / partner’s program? Would it have been so heavily geared towards shopping? Or would the diversity in the gang of 45 women spouses with zero male representation impact the crafting of agenda? Maybe, the males in the group would have forced the organizers to cater to more ‘male’ specific choices on the spouse’s agenda.
I could not help but wonder, why only so few women get to reach the top positions? Why are the men CEOs not concerned about finding so few females amidst their lot? Nature intended to have an equal representation of the male and the female. The yin and the yang. So why this disequilibrium in the top echelons of the corporate world? Are women not smart enough? Capable enough? What’s going on here?
I want to take this opportunity to urge the CEOs in the room that day to think deeper on why is it that their partners could not be represented in the room instead of them? Did their partners not have what it takes? Or did they sit on the shoulders of these unrepresented ‘giants’ to rise to the top?
What can we do to have an equal representation in the CEO Agenda and the Partner’s Agenda? I leave you to think about these questions. I have two daughters and it is of deep concern to me as to what we want to tell our next generation? What do we envision for our daughters? Would we like them in the Room full of CEOs or in the room full of spouses/partners?