Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 12:57 UK

Women could be the way forward

By Rob Young
Reporter, World Business News, BBC World Service

It's fair to say the average gathering of business leaders has a disproportionate number of men.

Peter Mandelson
Mr Mandelson believes women could help economies out of the recession

But a corporate event in London this week is completely different. It's made up of hundreds of businesswomen from around the world. The guest list is impressive - UK Atomic Energy Authority chair Lady Barbara Judge, PR guru Lynne Franks and 3i chair Baroness Hogg to name but a few.

One of the purposes of this conference is to talk about ways of getting more women running and setting up businesses. But ironically, some of the strongest advocates for encouraging women to become entrepreneurs are the small number of men here.

"Women have a huge amount to contribute to business at top levels. There are barriers holding them back," says Lord Mandelson, Britain's Business Secretary.

"This is wrong. It's not just for the women as individuals; it's unfair to the rest of us because our economies are losing out as a result."

Deal makers and breakers

He reckons the economy would come out of recession more quickly if women can be persuaded to set up their own businesses. The US is much better at this than the UK, he says.

Most of the conference sessions have titles like International Trade and The Power of Sales. This is not just about trying to promote women in business; there are deals to be struck and recessions to be dealt with.

Maybe when we have problems, women go for it in a stronger way
Nalatia Guicciardini-Strozzi, winery owner

Lady Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, a member of the Rothschild dynasty, runs a global investment fund.

"We are still in precarious times but there is reason to believe the system is not going to collapse. Things are getting better, there's no question," she says.

But are things getting better for women in the workplace and the boardroom?

Some of the discussions focus on the positions women hold - and many say should be holding - in corporate and civic life. For example 'The Role of Women 12 years on' sounds intriguing.

Gaining importance

But when the delegates are pushed on whether women feel marginalised in their corporate lives, many are polite.

"Women are becoming more and more important figures," says Nalatia Guicciardini-Strozzi who runs a 1,000-year-old winery in Milan in Italy. (She's also said to be a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.)

"Maybe when we have problems, women go for it in a stronger way. We are a typical example of what women can do," she adds.

Choosing women is not cosmetic
Sheikha Aisha al-Thani, Qatar Supreme Council on Education member

She and her business partner - who's also her sister - are trying to expand their business into new markets.

There have also been examples of how women are setting up their own firms in the Middle East and North Africa, a part of the world where it's not always easy for women to operate independently.

A large number of the delegates are from the region, in particular from Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco.

Sheikha Aisha al-Thani, a member of Qatar's Supreme Council on Education, says the corporate and entrepreneurial opportunities for women in the Middle East are improving. She's chairman of her own company, Al Faleh Group.


How much influence does she think women have on businesses in Qatar?

Lynne Franks
PR expert Lynne Franks is one of the many experts offering their views

"Seven years ago, I would say not much," Sheikha Aisha explains.

"Since then the Emir's wife has started a very brave initiative which leaked to other countries in the region. She took on the role to empower women in Qatar and the Gulf in general."

Many women here may want more female colleagues in senior roles in companies, but not just for the sake of it.

As Sheikha Aisha says: "Choosing women is not cosmetic; I don't like quota systems. When men are more efficient it should be men who take the seat."

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