My participation at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society (day 1)

Some weeks ago, Una O’Sullivan invited Gabi Barna, Māra Jākobsone, Widad El Hanafi, Abeer Al-Mukhaini, Salwa Al-Jabri and myself to represent our NGO’s at the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society. Unfortunately Gabi’s flight was cancelled, but Māra and myself are here as members of telecentre-europe and want to share some of our networking experiences with all of you.

The Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society aims to promote women’s vision on the key social and economic issues of our era. In only three years it has become an international must-attend event and brings together 1000+ very senior thought leaders & government representatives from around the world. Being among the participants is a great way to network on site and promote our organization and training programs.

This year, the Women’s Forum is held at the beautiful city of Deauville at the coast of Normandy, in the North of France. Houses are beautiful here and our hotel looks like a walk into a ferrytale! This morning though we started extremely early (at 7h15!!!). Una had set up an informal breakfast meeting with Lisa Brumell, Microsoft's Senior Vice-President for Human Resources.

At this early morning meeting, Māra, myself and Widad El Hanafi – a very smart lady from Morocco representing Women in Technology – have been briefing Lisa Brumell on what our organizations are doing “in the field”. We explained some details about our training programs, their impact, their outreach and their gender implications. The discussion on gender & IT was particulary interesting because Māra questioned the existence of a gender gap in Latvia. She raised: “Latvian women are already empowered, due to the cultural influence of nearby Scandinavia and former communist Russia, neighbouring societies that score high on the equal treatment of men and women, and always fostered a positive image of women in technology.”

We asked Lisa Brumell about the proportion of women working in Microsoft as a global company. She told us she is personally very committed in having society’s diversity reflected inside the company. She regularly orders some research to follow up on the figures of female employees and other minorities. Today, women represent 25% of Microsoft employees. This is about the same number of women that graduate from technology studies. Other companies in the industry are presenting a similar result, but Lisa Brumell is convinced that Microsoft can do better. She launched a “personal career development plan”, that must enable more women to reach the higher positions throughout the company.

With this good practice fresh in our minds, we were off to the Forum’s venue. Nobody less than Colombia’s ex-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was going to kick off the conference with an opening speech! Ingrid has been emprisoned for 6 years by the FARC guerilla, and after her liberation she became a role model, a symbol of female strength and wisdom. “The world has become my family”, she said, “The happiness that I am free now became their happiness. No more fighting has to be done for me now, so let’s fight for the others. Not with weapons, but with words. Women can make a difference, because they have the power of the word. And proper words can change the world. In the jungle I couldn’t do much, but I could think. And now that I’m free I can talk. I want to use my words for those that can’t speak. I want to use my words to change the hearts of those that are listening.”

With these powerful words the Women’s Forum was launched and off we went with our flyers and brochures to the Microsoft Unlimited Potential booth that Una and her colleagues had set up at the “Empowering women through IT” corner. We decided to take turns on our presence at the booth, and alternate our networking activities with our participation at some of the discussion sessions.

Widad and I decided to attend the session where Lisa Brummel was one of the speakers: "Does innovation in sciences and technology always mean progress?". The session dealt with the question of control over unethical practices related to scientific and technological development and if limits can be fixed to stop innovation and scientific research. Lisa Brummel: "Unethical issues related to ICT are about the privacy and the security of information on the web. Information can both be helpful and harmful. We should educate people to ensure that the use of the tools are done in the right way, because we want to continue enlightening people on technology, despite the issues of privacy and security. We want no limits on access to technology, because it empowers people to become part of the economic system. But ofcourse, sometimes there needs to be a limit on how people engage with that, for example the access of children to the web cannot be unlimited." As for science, the panel members agreed that it is the role of the government to set up some general principles such as "respect for the integrity of the human body" and "refusing the instrumentalisation of the human body". Also, they were convinced that in the present system self-regulation the science community has no interest to engage in unethical practices.

At lunch, we were accompanied by a speech of Margot Wallström, the vice-President of the European Commission herself. Her words directly appealed to the 1000 women gathered in the room to take up a political career and present theirselves at the policy making table. Margot Wallström:"We cannot depend on men to decide on issues that affect women more than men or women consider important. Moreover, the problems of the world are huge today, and women can make a difference in the fight against todays' climate change and financial crisis. Just look what happened in Iceland: some reckless "young financial boys" were replaced by female bankdirectors - "Men make a mess and women arrive to clean everything" - an Icelandic newspaper quoted."

The rest of the day I spent at the booth, networking with the visitors and writing this blogpost. In a next blogpost I will tell you more about these networking experiences, as for now we are closing and off for dinner at Honfleur, a picturesque port some km's up north...

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Comment by Sylvie Laffarge on October 22, 2008 at 15:25
I would like to add how happy we were to host our partner NGO's in Deauville last week at the Women's Forum. Even though this was not a Community Affairs led event but we were asked to showcase some of our best field partners at the forum. But beyond the forum itself and the various sessions which Lize has highlighted very well, it was a pleasure for me to meet all of our visiting guests. By the sheer nature of their work in the field both my regional leads Melissa and Una work very closely with our partners and get a better chance to spend time with our NGO's but this was a special opportunity for me as it usually is to get to meet with you and get a better feel for the extraordinary work you do on the ground, so beyond the Forum or any forum really, the great quality of our partners never cease to amaze me.. so this is my takeaway.

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