On the first night of last week’s Power Shift Forum in the U.K., I was seated next to a woman from one of the world’s best-known investment banks, enjoying the formal college dinner that is so much part of the Oxford experience.  We were looking out from the high table at some 200 participants chatting excitedly across long white tablecloths, the arched wood ceiling and massive portraits creating a scene reminiscent of Harry Potter’s dining hall at Hogwart’s. 

As we talked about the remarkable sense of cohesion and purpose that had spontaneously emerged from the group, the banker smiled widely and, with a slight giddiness that belied her suited professionalism, said, “I think we are a movement.”

The group had been convened formally as The Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy, but the casual title, “Power Shift,” was the one that stuck.  The planning team selected the participants with a careful eye to balance corporations, academics, entrepreneurs, government agencies, foundations and NGOs.  Representatives ranged from ExxonMobil and Coca-Cola, to the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus and CARE International. We had Kresse Wesling from Elvis & Kresse, as well as Dame Stephanie Shirley, probably the most famous female entrepreneur in Britain. We had a Chinese women’s rights activist, as well as Cherie Blair and Muna Abusulayman, a Saudi media celebrity. Walmart announced a new research platform. Banks and consultancies were on hand. There was even a scholar from “the other school”-Cambridge.

The program was designed to encourage engagement across these sectoral boundaries and, to our gratitude, the result was a sparkling outpouring of ideas. 

By the final session 24 hours later, I thought my dinner partner had captured the essence of the moment perfectly. Instead of drifting off to the train station early, the Power Shift group packed the Nelson Mandela Theatre to make resolutions and plans for next year’s gathering. 

There was a remarkable amount of agreement about what needs to be done next to encourage women’s inclusion in the world economy. Overwhelmingly, the first demand was for information: economic data is seldom disaggregated to show gender effects and often excludes the neediest among the world’s women by focusing at the household level. Next, though, was a desire to zoom in on financial exclusion, to demand an explanation for the extreme gender skew in availability of capital worldwide.  Greater clarity of concepts such as “confidence” and “risk” and less stereotyping of women’s motivations and choices were also demanded.  The true reach and viability of new technologies to close the gender gap were also of keen interest. 

One frequent refrain was the need to include men. This group was mostly female, but the institutions represented testified to the support of sympathetic males in several nations and sectors. Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned from this magic gathering:  the right moment for women’s economic empowerment is now.

The next Power Shift Forum will be held May 28-29, 2014, in Oxford. Contact wwef@sbs.ox.ac.uk to inquire about invitations.

Linda Scott is DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Oxford. Follow her on Twitter @ProfLindaScott.

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