SHE Conference Unpacked: My top five takeaways from Europe's largest gender diversity conference

By Melanie Ewan

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend SHE Conference in Norway. Promoted as Europe’s largest gender diversity conference, with a solid lineup and all-day opportunities to engage with exhibitors, speakers and peers, attending this event was a no-brainer for me.

My goal was to soak up and learn as much as possible about how gender diversity is talked about here in Europe, and more importantly, what initiatives are being actioned or considered to address existing barriers. I figured that this would be a particularly interesting opportunity given that it was taking place in Norway, a country that consistently ranks at the top of multiple indices for gender equality, amongst other things.

Before I arrived, I already had a sense of the conference angle as the event website predominantly spoke to the business case for diversity. But what does this mean in a European context? Are women experiencing the same barriers that we uncovered through Women in Tech World’s Driving WinTech Canada?

Turns out, we’re not that different. Here’s the top five themes that consistently popped up throughout the conference, including key takeaways and my favourite quotes.

1. Equality Matters. It’s not only fair, it’s profitable.

The tagline for SHE Conference, this theme of ‘diversity is good business’, came up consistently and was almost a mantra of the speakers. It’s an interesting one as my understanding is that the private sector is seriously lagging in gender equality in Norway, but that it is the businesses that are most likely to push the government for change.

This idea came from Anette Trettebergstuen, Norwegian politician, who stated, “we have a lot of shameful statistics, especially when it comes to diversity and equality in business,” following this with her concern that things are actually going in the wrong direction as the government removes tools and resources. She felt that business is ahead of government in terms of inciting change and encouraged those in business to push harder.

2. Data is power.

“In the absence of data, it’s all just talk.” A strong statement made by Sanjam Sahi Gupta, founder of Women in Shipping (WISTA) and the woman who launched SHE Index India. This theme around the importance of data was echoed amongst the other speakers and it soon became apparent how much this country values hard data and using this data to incite change.

“In the absence of data, it’s all just talk.” - Sanjam Gupta

At Women in Tech World, we have been promoting the value of data-driven decision-making and programming to support women and girls for a couple of years, but it is easier said than done. It takes time to capture the data, expertise to analyse it, and a true commitment to change to actually do something with that data.

Norway’s SHE Index demonstrates that the key is to start somewhere, whether it’s within in your own company with private audits and surveys or looking beyond to assess an entire sector, there is value in starting to ask the tough questions and be honest about the answers. Only in admitting our failings can we start to move forward.

3. Avoid complacency when you are flattered by rankings.

Perhaps one of the more unique aspects of the conference was the truth telling that bubbled up time and again around things not being quite so bright and shiny in Norway as the world seems to think. As stated by Sony Kapoor, Managing Director of Re-Define, “indices fail to capture what numbers can’t tell us. [...] All [indices] tell you is that you’re better than your neighbours.”

“Indices fail to capture what numbers can’t tell us.” - Sony Kapoor

He was of course speaking to Norway’s top placing on indices across the board and went on to uncover the realities of wealth inequality, racism, sexism in the workplace, and nepotism that are rooted in this country. He spoke to the long-term economic harm of this: “75% of wealth comes from human capital. Equality really matters and we have a long way to go.”

While it might be easy to get disheartened by messages like this, to me it was both uplifting and inspiring. If Norway can stand up and say, “actually, we have a lot of work to do,” on a global stage, then this should be a rallying cry for so many others to own up to our deficiencies and systemic barriers and start to take real action on them.

4. Less Talk, More Action.

Perhaps the loudest theme of the conference, both on stage and around the meetup tables, the push to take action was well received. Much like our findings in Canada, women and their allies across myriad fields are tired of all the talk and want to see real actionable change. And not just hands-off workshops or bias training. They want to see that action being taken speaks to the lived experiences and ‘right now’ needs of women at all stages of their career.

“Sitting here today is easy. The job is hard.” - Kjartan Slette

As stated by Kjartan Slette, Co-Founder and COO, Unacast, “sitting here today is easy. The job is hard.” Meaning, attending conferences and chatting about these issues isn’t good enough. Slette told the story of his company, about how they owned up to their failure in company diversity, particularly at management level. He was an inspiring speaker, and implored us all to work harder, ask tough questions, take the time required to do it right, and start today to implement real change.

This theme was my favourite, as it reinforced the work that we have been doing at Women in Tech World, that it is relevant across borders, and that our action-oriented approach was the right way to go. Of course, securing funding for those activities is another conversation, and was one that came up in Norway as well.

5. This is a global issue.

While a majority of the speakers were from Norway or transplanted from nearby countries, there was still a good global lens on the conversation, including Canada and the US--though there wasn’t a solid understanding of the Canadian perspective and how similar we are, which I would have liked to have contributed, and did so during my mini-conversations.

One very interesting talk was again from Sahi, who spoke to how she was the only woman in the room in the shipping industry in India for many years, how meetings would always be addressed ‘to the gentlemen in the room’, and how one time her peers wouldn’t even start a meeting she was in ‘until her boss arrived’. She informed them that they had to talk to her, but this sparked a drive in her to make a difference for women in India.

Sahi noted, “women make 28.5% of the workforce in India, and that’s not unleashing the power of women, is it?” and talked about the value of taking initiatives like SHE Index to fast developing regions where they can make a large impact. She asked the audience to encourage more role models for women and to tell true stories--both of which were strong themes in our research in Canada as well.

To Wrap Up

At the end of the day, the message was clear: equality matters and needs to be addressed for women and girls (and so many others) of all ages, backgrounds, roles, and socioeconomic status. As stated by Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, “it’s about business. It’s about politics. It’s about how we use our talent pool. But it’s also personal.”

And, we need to take this conversation beyond the SHE Conference walls. From comments I heard, having a space like this where people meaningfully interact with one another and tell their truth is not commonplace here in Norway. And as stated by Javad Mushtaq, Director of Katapult, Nordic Impact Investment, “those people who we need to convince, they’re not necessarily here.”

“It’s about business. It’s about politics. It’s about how we use our talent pool. But it’s also personal.” - Torbjørn Røe Isaksen

So, take those lessons and conversations that you had at SHE Conference or wherever else you happen to be, and turn them into action. Ask those who aren’t part of the conversation, whether obvious leaders or not, to take part and to show that they too are committed to equality. Better yet, ask them to make one actionable change today, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2019.

The time is now, there is momentum in the air. Let’s make this happen.

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To read more about Women in Tech World's research on Canadian women in tech, visit https://womenintechworld.com/gender-equity-roadmap/canada/study-of-women-in-tech