Melissa Whiting: Why it’s time to give women the chance to lead the world

I attended the Global Women Summit in Basel, Switzerland recently; a place for top government, business and nonprofit organisation officials to meet and exchange ideas. Attending this year’s summit, I realised that it coincided with outside events that nicely illustrated increasing gender equality. But I saw how those inspiring news items also offer timely reminders that the glass remains half-full. Though we are advancing, we really need to kick things into higher gear.

I was thrilled watching the US women’s football team dazzle millions of worldwide viewers in the World Cup—roaring their demands for equal pay and other socially engaged issues throughout their victorious run. Meanwhile, top women tennis pros Serena Williams and Simona Halep battled it out at Wimbledon in a sport whose prize money is equal for women and men. In fact, now, Megan Rapinoe of the US soccer team is backing Serena William’s comments for an equal pay fight across the board.

The theme of this year’s summit in Basel was, “Women: Redefining Success,” and it served to bring together several streams of thought—of home as well as work; career rewards plus personal well-being; equal access to the opportunities we all want—and to how we’re compensated for our accomplishments. Those are pressing considerations in what remains a struggle to fill our equality glass to the brim.

In a volatile, complex and increasingly polarised world suffering considerable environmental, poverty, well-being and wealth distribution imbalances, it’s women who still get the short end of multiple sticks. Women represent 57 percent of US college graduates, and control over 70 to 80 percent of global consumer spending. Yet average pay to women is still 21 percent less than men. Just 6.6 per cent of 2019 Fortune 500 company CEOs—and 22.5 per cent of their board members—are women. And only 59 countries have ever had a woman heading the government.

Indeed, it’s instructive to examine how different a woman-led government responded to mass murder on her watch. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden first responded to the March 15 slaughter of 51 people with tough new gun laws, then went farther to address underlying factors of violence. She passed the world’s first “well-being budget” worth billions of dollars, addressing mental health concerns, child poverty, family battery and other problems often plaguing populations that economic growth have forsaken.

Simply a plank in a progressive’s political agenda? Perhaps, but it’s also characteristic of a more “feminine power” based on inclusion, intuition, collaboration and empathy that the world needs more of today. And it’s more effective than barked orders, alpha-male swagger and myopic obsession with bottom lines that have put our world in the fixes we find ourselves.

These are not issues of gender or diversity; they’re ones of humanity.

Addressing them doesn’t end with more women ascending to leadership roles. It also requires a change in the ways both men and women lead. That means giving greater value to attributes traditionally considered “feminine,” including empathy, compassion, collaboration and investment in relationships. It involves promoting quiet voices, including marginalised individuals, and taking care—rather than taking charge— of other people and our planet.

These changes are increasingly urgent. Millennials and younger generations are already expressing distaste with older, more hierarchical leadership styles, and are starting to reject them. That was evident at the summit’s Youth Forum, featuring young women who developed successful businesses placing social benefit on par with profits. They urged courage, creativity and determination of women—some who are alone amid male colleagues—in putting their feminine traits and strengths to work in making things happen and dreams come true. “Be like a virus,” one advised. “Infect people with your passion and purpose.”

How do we start? We recognise careers don’t have to be linear, constant and sabotaged for anyone who pauses to care for kids or aging parents or to pursue other life priorities. We recognise that men too want greater flexibility at work and more sharing of parenting responsibilities. We acknowledge the myriad achievements and varied leadership strengths women contribute. And finally, we should remember that humans adapt in groups, not alone. To change the long-dominant, top-down habits, cultures, and norms –on equality and beyond— we need the balanced energy of companies, government and the public community working together to create a better future for all of us.





Melissa is vice president of inclusion & diversity at Philip Morris International. She joined Philip Morris International (PMI) in 2001 as a lawyer in Australia. Since then, she has held a variety of roles in the Law Department covering Australia, Asia and Eastern Europe. In 2017 Melissa was appointed Vice President Inclusion & Diversity. In this role, Melissa is responsible for leading PMI’s strategy and practices to create an inclusive workplace for everyone to achieve their personal best and contribute to PMI’s ambition of replacing cigarettes with better alternatives to smoking as soon as possible. Her advancement within the organization has highlighted the value of empowering women in the workplace and the corporate benefits of equality, fairness and diversity. An avid adventurer – Melissa has hiked in the Himalaya, up Kilimanjaro, around Mt Blanc and across the Pyrenees – she believes curiosity, perseverance and pushing through discomfort are key to growth and fulfillment.