Gradually, over the course of the 20th century, many companies and governments around the world developed a new perception of the role of women in the workplace and universities. Little by little, many women have risen to higher positions in academics, politics and the professions. These women are confident that they can be more efficient than men. As Nuria Chinchilla, a professor at IESE Business School in Madrid, put it: Women are continuing to use their special talents — their “feminine genius and energy — to transform society and modern companies” during the 21st century. Chinchilla spoke during the second International Conference on “Women, Enterprise, Society in the Twenty-first Century,” held at IESE in early April.


The conference brought together leaders from business, academia and politics, both from Spain and other countries. The participants launched a dialogue about the challenges, achievements and obstacles that professional women face in their working environments. Several distinguished executives shared their experiences and viewpoints about how they have developed their own careers and achieved professional success. They also discussed the obstacles that women face in management and the solutions that they have applied at their companies. 


According to Chinchilla, every woman must directly deal with difficult obstacles in order to achieve the ambition of a good life that fulfills professional goals and the roles of mother, wife and citizen. To achieve total integration and harmony, they must move toward a new concept of success that involves freedom and flexibility in their corporate cultures as well as social conditions. Governments always play a helpful role, but the women favor global policies that assist and promote the total participation of women in all aspects of life, including politics, business and the family. 


Juan José Toribio, the professor at IESE who established the conference, began by noting that both entrepreneurs and managers must maximize their potential for humane and ethical behavior. “At IESE, we try to incorporate women into the cloisters of academia. One of our main challenges is to confront every sort of discrimination against women. We are totally opposed to squandering feminine brain power.” 


Chinchilla, who has conducted two of these conferences during the past year, says that the current century is a defining moment for women. But if women are to achieve success, “men must [also] play a role.” According to Chinchilla, women have a much greater ambition than men, “although to achieve success, both genders must work together.”  Chinchilla recalled the words of Alvaro d’Ors, a professor at the University of Navarre [in Spain.]  In place of the revolutionary threesome of liberty, equality and fraternity, d’Ors offered “responsibility, legitimacy and paternity.” Chinchilla noted, “No two people are alike. So why not talk about diversity instead of equality?” She emphasized that fraternity is a term that could refer to either maternity or paternity.


First Steps by the Nigerian Government


Until 2003, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s current Minister of Finance, was formerly vice president of the World Bank. She is one of only three women in the world to hold that position. Her task now involves reorganizing a country that has been ranked the second most corrupt country in the world, after only Bangladesh. Her goal is to guarantee that Nigeria’s huge oil revenues (36 billion euros last year) — which are misspent by the country’s small elite — are used for providing drinkable water, schools and healthcare for Nigeria’s 137 million people. Ibukun Awosika, founder of the Christian Missionary Fund, which provides support for missionaries in Nigeria, said, “Nowadays there are a lot of women in strategic positions in the Nigerian government, and they are introducing a lot of changes. They are also a source of inspiration for many young women who are starting to emulate the model created by these high-level women, and are introducing changes for the country.” Awosika, a mother of three, is also managing director of Soka Chair Centre Ltd. She added that women in high positions in Nigeria “got there through hard work, not by being elected.” She issued a call for “finding the freedom that we need so we know what to do; we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our society.”


“Success in life has to do with the broadest meaning of the word,” said Janne H. Matlary, a professor at the University of Oslo, and a mother of four. In her speech, Matlary said that power and money are “very addictive.” She added that business leaders are increasingly motivated by brands, not by products. Success should be measured in terms of work that is fulfilling to every individual. Matlary supports the concept that when people demonstrate that they are responsible parents, “they change the way they interact with their employees.”  Political and social conditions do not favor reconciliation between the demands of the family and those of the workplace. “Nobody can measure how much is lost when a woman works outside her home.” Matlary urges people to recognize the importance of work that involves no remuneration, “such as taking care of the children and the home.”


Toward a New Paradigm


Another speaker at the conference was Chong Siak Ching, the woman who has been president and CEO of Ascendas since January 2001. Ascendas is the leading provider of business space in Asia, with a presence in 10 countries. Siak is a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Collaboration Business Advisory Group (ABAC), and she advises governments about how to improve economic conditions for women in Asia.


“In Malaysia, women are undervalued but it is very encouraging to think that little by little the situation is changing.” In Singapore, [as well,] leaders are very authoritarian. They do not react, they are afraid of risks, and they don’t take criticism well because almost all of the leaders are men. Siak believes that women are ready to confront these complexities. “We women are creating a new paradigm. We have a more holistic vision, which makes us more prepared to be leaders; we don’t have to be just like men.”


However, many women give up their business careers because it seems impossible for them to pursue both [their personal and professional] goals. As a result, many talented people are lost along the road. At IBM, every worker was asked what was needed to create the perfect working environment. “We want to emphasize a business culture that is more focused on getting results than on how many hours are spent at the office,” says Amparo Moraleda, the woman who became president of IBM’s Iberian operations in July 2001. “The old culture still believes that those people who spend more time in the office are more committed [to their work].” The secret of successful “head hunting” is to know how to go beyond the generic to the specific; to put a first name and a last name on an idea, and expose employees to different challenges that provide you with assurances that they can develop.


“To sustain its corps of leadership, a company must be able to recognize, attract and keep talented women,” adds Moraleda. For her and her company, the greatest asset of any company is the wealth of knowledge of the professionals who comprise it. IBM tries to take advantage of everyone’s skills. To that end, IBM has developed procedures for facilitating the promotion and development of women. “Promoting diversity is a basic component in innovation, and in creating a competitive advantage,” says Moraleda, noting that people are the key to success in any organization, especially those companies in which innovation, creativity and/or customer service play an important role. Moraleda believes that an intelligent enterprise should not skimp when it comes to preparing its corps of future leaders. Increasingly, the process of incorporating women into professional life is becoming more proactive. We’re on an unstoppable course toward achieving reconciliation between family life and work.”   



True Talent Makes No Distinction between Genders


Establishing a culture in which there is a healthy balance between work and family is the main goal of Jaime Aguirre, human resources director of Ferrovial, the Spanish construction company. “Talent does not distinguish between genders,” says Aguirre, a father of five. He agrees that today’s employees become much more productive when they manage to reconcile their family life with their work schedule. Three years ago Ferrovial established a code of professional ethics, which went into effect this year. “We are evaluating the productivity of our employees.” Among the features of this plan are early working hours at the office, intensive workdays that fit into school schedules, permission for breast feeding, and assistance for disabled employees.


Construction is a hard sector for women to enter. At least that’s what people thought until recently. According to Rafael Montes, human resources director at Acciona, the fourth-largest construction company in Spain, the most important thing is to change the mentality of males. “When you have a responsibility but you don’t help out, you should be doing something. Males need to be conscientious about sharing all the housework with women.” He adds that a lack of education has created a culture that doesn’t favor integration of men and women. He believes that everyone has a responsibility to find his or her proper role in society. That would contribute to changing the male mentality so that “women can develop our society by using their talents.”


According to Macarena Cassinello, Nissan’s General Manager in Europe, the value of a company increases when it guarantees “equality between the headcount of employees by gender in those markets we are involved in.” The automobile world is a sector managed and directed almost exclusively by men, she added. “We cannot compromise quality but if female candidates apply, we can hire them if they have the right skills,” Cassinello said. Nissan is pursuing an aggressive policy of improving the position of women, and the company has already made strides in improving interpersonal relations. Labor unions have more power. Clearly, “women have the attitude that they will permanently improve the working environment,” she adds.


In Search of Personal Equilibrium


Success in life is not about achieving your goals in only one area of your life and sacrificing everything else. “Knowing that there is a balance permits me to continue to contribute value, and to feel good about every aspect of my life,” explains Maria del Mar Ares, a partner at Ernst & Young in Spain. She believes that true success means achieving a “life with value.” It’s not about the external factors that people normally identify with success. She also believes that the economy is losing a significant amount of value because many female professionals with experienced positions have a hard time reconciling their working life with their personal life. She says that it costs 1.5 times as much to replace a good professional employee [as it does to retain a current employee.] Retaining women with talent will save a great deal of money and contribute a great deal of value to companies.


In the future, women will be the raw material for companies to mine for greater talent “because it is a fact that there is a shortage of qualified personnel,” says del Mar Ares. Traditionally, many women who are approaching the age of 30 and becoming mothers reconsider their careers and decide to make a change. They think that the responsibilities of their jobs are not compatible with their private lives. However, the new generation of the twenty-first century has a very different mentality than the dominant viewpoint of 10 or 20 years ago. “More and more, other factors are becoming the key to attracting and retaining people in companies — such aspects as the quality of life for both men and women,” adds del Mar Ares. Most people think that there is no discrimination when it comes to offering promotions to higher positions.  It is a matter of personal choice. A woman’s career can come to a screeching halt if she cannot manage to reconcile both roles. Nevertheless, the latest data shows that most women [in Spain] who have achieved managerial positions and partnerships are also married and have children. “In Spain, four out of our ten newly promoted partners have been women, and three of those women were expecting their second child,” del Mar Ares states.