Opportunity Knocks at W20

Opportunity Knocks at W20

Dr Victoria Herrington

Opportunity Knocks at W20

It is a truism in any professional development that it isn’t what you do in class that counts, it’s what you do between classes that matters. For most on the EMBA the space between classes is fraught catching up at work after a full-on week in Oxford, reconnecting with family and friends who feel increasingly squeezed out of one’s life, grappling with the never-ending-brain-bending assignments, and frantically preparing for the next week at Oxford. Yes, this EMBA really is that hard.

But there are myriad opportunities too. Opportunities that may have seemed impossible dreams before starting this journey seven months ago. The opportunity to distribute laptops to a school in Africa, as one of my EMBA colleagues has done. The opportunity to provide much needed microfinance assistance to forgotten refugees languishing in camps, as is another. The opportunity to connect and support women entrepreneurs in Oxford, philanthropists in the US, and investors in Russia as three more are doing. Armed with skills, passion, and the energy and network that a room full of 70 successful people gives you, our EMBA cohort is making the most of the time in between classes to make their EMBA investment count. None more so than Haruno Yoshida-san. Who generously provided me, and three of my EMBA colleagues, with an incredible opportunity last month; to attend the W20 in Tokyo, and hear more about how the global community was working to improve women’s economic empowerment.   

Haruno was co-chair of the W20, which is one of the official engagement groups of the G20; the main goal being to “promote women’s economic empowerment as an integral part of the G20 process”.  Having spent her career championing the role of women in business (you can find out more about her work here), Haruno was turning her hand to influencing Prime Minister Abe and his G20 colleagues about how women must play a more complete role in economic life; an argument that seemingly continually needs to be made.  

Japan is ranked 110 out of 149 countries in the latest World Economic Forum Gender Equality rankings. The index measures the gap between men and women along four important sub-indices: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. By comparison Australia was ranked 39th, the UK was 15th, and New Zealand ranked 7th. The Nordic countries took the top spots – of course – alongside Nicaragua and Rwanda at 5 and 6 respectively[i]. But the conversations in Tokyo applied to all countries.

In the world of public safety, gender equality has been a hot topic for some time. In Australia several police forces and public safety agencies have initiated, and been truly shocked by, independent reports into the experiences of women in their organisations. These reports highlighted that some women were experiencing predatory behaviour and sexual harassment by colleagues, and many more were held back by outmoded gender stereotypes, direct and indirect discrimination. To their credit, the commissioners vowed to make a difference. Although as with all things in all organisations, they have found that implementing change involves a complex unravelling of history and tradition, formal and informal incentives, and stories about the status quo being the “only way we can do our jobs”.


The W20 show-cased that policing and public safety organisations are not alone in facing these hurdles. What is interesting, and instructive for policing, though is that I also sensed recognition of the need for a shift in the narrative around women’s empowerment. From empowerment for women, to improving the life chances of all.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, noted that gender stereotypes limit the lives of men and boys as much as they do women. Nobel Peace Prize winner and fellow Oxford student Malala Yousafzai and Prime Minister Abe both recognised the importance of “quality” education (an important distinction) on a women’s life chances, although Gabriela Ramos – OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20 – urged us to go even further calling for next generation education to engage both girls and boys, so that the biases of the analogue world were not replicated in the digital economy. Arancha Gonzales (executive Director of the International trade Centre), Isabel de Saint Malo de Alverado (Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Panama) and Gabriela Michetti (Vice President of the Argentine Republic) all in their own ways noted that women’s economic empowerment was not about women’s rights or women’s advancement, but about leveraging the difference in perspective, power, and skills that women bring to improve life chances – and business outcomes – for all. It seems we have framing the issue “all wrong…we cannot continue to be a room full of women, talking to other women, about things for women”.

This got my attention.

Across the social-problem spectrum, equality, equity, and equivalence are tricky intents to pin down in policy. We recognise that women should not be promoted because they are women, yet our organisational solutions to improve female progression into leadership roles still focus on “fixing” the women. Helping them better able to fit into the extant system. Reducing decisions based on their gender (an important contribution, of course). And trying to make them as “successful” as men.

Another approach might be to question what “successful” is; what we value in organisations; and how we might shift that to the benefit of everyone. Susan Ferrier (Global Head of People at KPMG), and Stacey Kennedy (President of South and South East Asia at Philip Morris), gave the W20 some insights into how their organisations were attempting to do this. Meritocratic advancement is a defining characteristic of many organisations, but if judgements about what is, and is not, meritorious are made by a room full of middle-aged-white-men, you end up with a system that privileges presenteeism and long working hours, internal and external competition, and outmoded interpretations of what it means to be a “strong leader”. As soon as the definition of merit is expanded to include other – equally effective but qualitatively different – behaviours, the playing field is (better) levelled, and equality of opportunity is better ensured for all.

This is no mean feat. In the Australian Federal Police the policy of “all roles flex” is challenging traditional systems for rostering the truck and equitably distributing the crappy night shifts. Making progress on this is challenging our deeply held assumptions about how we do our jobs, and the stories we tell ourselves about the sacrifice this entails. But it offers a wonderful opportunity too. We have in our power the ability to engineer a future that is less about work-life balance and more just about life. For men and women. The integrity of the meritocratic system is upheld if both men and women are free to be successful in their own, or a better balanced, way. And organisations benefit by valuing the diversity of ideas, practice, and leadership that they – presumably – hope will eventuate from the greater participation of women in the first place.

So what does this piece mean for current and prospective EMBAs? Among other things I think this blog should serve as a warning. If you do an EMBA at Oxford you should expect a ridiculous amount of work. You should expect to feel squeezed on all sides – at home, at work, in class. This is no surprise, and no different to anyone undertaking part time study anywhere else. The trouble with the Oxford EMBA is it fires you up to take things on. To make the most of the opportunities offered. To fly half way across the world for the weekend to observe a global debate. To see just how much of an impact you can have in changing the world. The Oxford EMBA changes the way you view problems, potential solutions, and your role in both. It exposes you to new environments and forces you to knit ideas from your current reality into a new one. Most of this happens outside of class. Which super-sizes the EMBA commitment to titanic proportions. And like the namesake ship, there is the ever-present danger that one might over-estimate one’s capacity and sink. 

This blog first appeared on the University of Oxford, Saïd Business School website here.