Leadership in the Female Decade: DLD Women 2011

It is lonely at the top, and all the more so if you are a woman. But that’s changing.

DLDWomen, a conference in Munich June 29-30 organized by Burda Media, featured three senior female politicians and some of the architects of the women's movement, along with top women in tech such as Google's Megan Smith, Candace Johnson, IBM's Marilyn Johnson and Facebook's Joanna Shields. The conference, which focuses on women’s influence on development in technology, media, markets and society, attracted some 600 women in business and the arts.

The conference celebrated the strides that women have made. But speakers pointed out that progress remains limited in many sectors and in many countries.

Take Germany. Ten years ago women represented only 2.5% of boards of major German companies. Ten years later they represent 3%. That is why Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, told conference goes in Munich that Germany needs to implement quotas immediately.

 It is a numbers game. We need more women at the top. Conference speaker Laura Liswood, was motivated to create the Council of Women World Leaders, with the help of Iceland President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1996 because women leaders often feel isolated.  “You can’t do it alone,” she says.

The fact remains that is tougher to succeed if you are a woman. “Women really have to have a passion for what they are doing because there are over scrutinized, there is less tolerance for mistakes,” she said in an interview with Informilo.

Liswood, one of many impressive women at the DLDWomen conference, never let that hold her back.  She earned an MBA from Harvard Business School , a BA from California State University, San Diego and a JD degree from the University of California, Davis, School of Law, and is admitted to practice law in California and Massachusetts. Her work with women presidents and prime ministers was the inspiration for the White House Project to change the cultural message in the United States about women as leaders.

 In 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Defense appointed her to a three year term on the Defense Advisory Committee on Woman in the Service.  Her career also includes management positions in the airline industry, a job as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group and managing Goldman Sachs’ global leadership and diversity division. She is now a senior advisor to the firm.

Along the way she wrote several books, found time to bicycle across Siberia and, following the September 11,2001 terrorist attack became a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C. and currently holds the rank of sergeant.

Liswood’s role as an architect of change began in1992, when she took on the job as director of the Women’s Leadership Project, identifying global leadership contributions by women heads of state. She interviewed 15 current and former women presidents and prime ministers, in a book and video documentary entitled Women World Leaders.

 The daughter of a policeman who dropped out of high school and a housewife,  Liswood says it took courage for her to work up the nerve to approach heads of state.  “I had to overcome my own internal fears,” she says. The bicycling trip through Siberia taught her how to do just that.

The cycling trip required enormous physical strength and energy but her fears about safety and her ability to succeed were proving to be draining, she recalls. “I knew I had to do something but had read that if you try to tamp down your fears they just pop up somewhere else so I knew the only solution was  embracing it,” she says.   Her strategy? “I knew I was going to have fear , so I decided to mentally put in my backpack, take it out and look at it from time to time, but not be dragged down by it.”  The same strategy helped when she was an unknown approaching world leaders, she says.

Her latest book, The Loudest Duck is a business guide that uses anecdotes to examine the challenges to traditional workplace diversity efforts. There is still much to do to attain a gender balance not just in politics but in business, she says.

“The issue is not about uptake, it is an upgrade problem,” says Liswood.

That is why some women in leadership – including German Minister von der Leyen – are convinced quotas are necessary. There is more and more evidence that change will not happen naturally, something that might come as a bit of a shock to a younger generation of women who oppose quotas.

Liswood's advice to  women who want to become leaders?  “Start at as early an age as possible and practice standing in front of a crowd and having your ideas challenged, speak out, aim for the top,” she says. And don’t let politics get in the way. “Change them,” she says. Amen.