Life

At a conference styled like a Kubrick day spa, futurists and trend forecasters imagine what is next for women in business. By Ghita Loebenstein.

The future is female

Ruth Marshall-Johnson, foresight director of The Future Laboratory, addresses the Female Futures Forum.
Credit: Yaya Stempler

The attendants at the conference wear lab coats and usher us into a dim, air-conditioned chamber. It is stylishly art-directed, white-on-white, affecting the ambience of a Kubrick day spa. Refreshments are politely proffered. Video art loops on a screen and classical music has been piped in.

Attendees huddle over their phones, pinging signals into the patriarchy. There can’t be more than six women of colour. I count two, maybe three, men, who look to be in their early to 30s. If this room is anything to go by, the Australian female future is young, white and devoid of men. This is a problem.

 

“The female perspective shouldn’t only be the privilege of women,” says Ruth Marshall-Johnson, foresight director at The Future Laboratory, a trend-forecasting agency based in London, New York and Melbourne. After years of forecasting trends in business, technology, fashion and marketing, “Female Futures” focuses specifically on women in work. The lab’s research seeks to build a strategic framework for a female future in the context of business and entrepreneurship.

We are, they say, at a tipping point, and the Sydney Female Futures forum is seeking a course for our “future-female destination”. The conversation was designed and advertised “to provoke change and cultivate female empowerment”.

Marshall-Johnson says that when planning began on the forum there was a mainstream narrative around the emancipation of women, around gender equality, and around greater inclusivity of women. “But when we dug a little deeper,” she says, “our research revealed that women are still one of the greatest untapped consumer markets, and that the equality gap still exists in pay, in the funding of female businesses, and in which gender faces the greatest threat from future automation.

“If we carry on just talking, women won’t achieve economic parity with men until 2186, according to the World Economic Forum.”

That’s 168 years away.

 

I am here as a journalist. I’m conscious of that privilege, and that of the attendees around me. Tickets for this event cost $1500.

The young woman sitting to my right, Jess, is in her late 20s and was sent from Melbourne by her female boss. The forum has nothing to do with her position or the company where she works, although she does run a bespoke bicycle business on the side. Jess has a “cool” boss who listened to her when she said she was interested in developing professionally.

“We didn’t approach women for this event. We approached businesses, and they sent their women,” Marshall-Johnson says. “I would love to do a men-only Female Futures event where their executives tell them that they have to come. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The research behind Female Futures took more than a year to put together, says Marshall-Johnson, and it is continually evolving. “We are not a charitable organisation mentoring the movement. We are reporting on what’s happening out there. So it’s a constant source of looking at what’s happening, seeing who the ambassadors and innovators are, trying to join the dots, and seeing what patterns are emerging. That’s how trend forecasting works. It’s deep research. We talk to innovators and thought leaders in a network we’ve developed over years.”

In Female Futures they were looking for a way to contextualise the huge global upsurge and interest in information about women, “both from a really activist, feminist point of view, which is of course important, and also from a realistic ‘what can we do tomorrow?’ question”.

Marshall-Johnson said the “place that we found in the middle of that was business”.

 

In 2017 a government mandate was introduced in Britain to ensure that companies with more than 250 employees declared their gender pay gap – a policy that will eventually extend to all companies.

Australia is yet to introduce such laws, but in 2017 the Workplace Gender Equality Agency estimated Australian women earn on average nearly 16 per cent less than men. This figure has remained stable for 20 years.

Exposing the pay gap means giving up some privilege. That makes some men uncomfortable. But if change is to occur at the top, men in power must be part of the conversation and solution.

 

What does the future female look and sound like, in business? What reflections are we looking for?

According to the lab’s research – itself synthesised from observing and interviewing a cross-generational and global network of innovators, thought leaders and lay consumers – she has dethroned traditional key performance indicators and given equal muscle to traditionally “feminine” traits, such as empathy, intuition, vulnerability and emotional intelligence. The lab research spoke of a workforce and work ethic that incorporated work that was collaborative, cooperative, fluid, flexible, shared and collectively beneficial. It recalibrated a new growth agenda based on social outcomes rather than profit as a primary motivator.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020 emotional intelligence will be the sixth most sought-after skill, ahead of judgement, decision-making and negotiation.

The laboratory identifies the new guard – members of generation Z – as characteristically fluid: less beholden to conventional gender stereotypes and more ethnically diverse than any generation in history. It is also flexible – new, multifaceted approaches to motherhood and parenthood will make living and working arrangements more flexible for all genders. The rise of freelance work and entrepreneurialism will enable some of this flexibility, support a more committed work–life balance and foster general wellness – although it also has negatives and creates a loss of security, especially for women. In the lab’s model, age and ageing will be celebrated, education and career development will be lifelong and accessible, the “gaze” will be neutralised, and technology will not only catch up to female consumer needs but be equally owned and coded by women.

“It’s time to adopt a less transactional definition in order to attract more talented women, and ensure that they flourish in an entrepreneurial environment. Emotional and personal growth will need their own metrics in a female future, and that means businesses must adopt new values around being family oriented, patient, long term and equal,” Marshall-Johnson says.

“A new growth agenda accepts a broader sense of business responsibility that continues to encompass investor and shareholder expectations, but also embraces the future of the environment, and even the planet. Only then can a business create the sustainable and authentic growth that a female future will demand.”

 

I am aware that this model of a female future excludes several intersectional arms. I am not unconscious of the fact that I am party to the predominantly white, cisgendered, heteronormative pallor of the room.

Ruth Marshall-Johnson says future female-centric reports will extend more deeply into intersectionality, although the current research did not address women of colour or the trans community.

Marshall-Johnson agreed trans women and women of colour “were not more present, that part is true”. She says: “We didn’t want to say anything out the front that was just an opinion or reiterating a media statement. We need to do our research, evidence it, get the data. We want to talk about what intersectional people – which is all of us – actually think, how they actually behave and where they spend their money. We didn’t feel ready to do that today. But it will be behind the research, quickly. We hope today will be one phase of a lot of research.”

Of the research that was done, she says: “We have to be evocative and set a precedent for people to realise that they want and need this information. There are many men who are saying, ‘I know this is important. I want it to be important, but I don’t have the words and the deep understanding of what it means.’ They feel outside of the conversation. So a lot of what we do is assist with how a business can talk to their community about this, and then hopefully we can build a growth strategy on top of that.”

What impressed itself upon me at this conference was the validation the lab’s data gave to the unique but innate “female” experience – as we inhabit work, entrepreneurship and, more broadly, the world. To have this experience legitimised with data, in a semi-public forum, feels significant, and exciting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2018 as "Delivering female". Subscribe here.

Ghita Loebenstein
writes about arts and culture and produces an event series on the female gaze in film.

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