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HEC Paris at Heart of 2020 Online Women’s Forum

For the third consecutive year, HEC Paris invited its leading researchers, students, alumni and staff members to participate in the Women’s Forum summit #WFGM20 which took place on November 17-19. For the first time in its 15-year history, the annual gathering went 100% online. It united around 3,000 people, including several dozen members of the HEC Paris community.

© Women’s Forum

For HEC Paris first-timers to the three-day Women’s Forum Grand Meeting, even this online experience felt overwhelming: “I truly enjoyed the discussions, which I found not only highly informative but also motivating and inspiring.” (Sofia Nestola, PGE Class). "Thank you for the opportunity to attend this amazing event. I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot!” (Sooraj Kapur, MBA). "Thank you again for this awesome experience! “ (Marie Alexandra Allidjinou, MiM Class).

Awesome for the fresh HEC Paris recruit from Côte d’Ivoire, undoubtedly. But, from the get-go, it was also sobering, a careful balance between the body blows that the global pandemic has given to the women’s movement … and its resilience. “COVID-19 has had devastating effects on women worldwide,” said Antonio Gutierrez in the opening ceremony. “But women have responded equally strongly and, in many cases, led the way.” The session in which the UN Secretary-General addressed thousands of online attendees set the tone. “2020 provided analytical evidence to the world that woman can lead,” stated Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership. “They have proven resilient, pragmatic, diversified, hostile to group-think and inflated egos…”

Challenges Ahead

Unfortunately, the first-ever WF barometer (3,500 respondents in G7 countries), delivered at the Forum, underlines the uphill struggle that women still face. Its author, deputy CEO at Ipsos, Henri Wallard  shared some of its conclusions: 79% of women say they have become tired and stressed by the burden of work (compared with 61% of men); 59% were burned out (46% men); 73% feared for the future (63% men). “In other words,” said Wallard, “we are going backwards. Underlying inequalities have been amplified and these results should be a call to arms.”


© Women’s Forum
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission

The subsequent speakers seemed shaken by the statistics. “None of you were expected in the positions you hold!” exclaimed European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to rally the troops. “You had to fight family, traditions, overcome obstacles of all kinds. We all know this should not be the case. But more challenges lay ahead: the UN is saying the pandemic could set back women’s rights by decades.”

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Competence, Benevolence and Integrity

Building trust could be a rampart against such a setback. Associate professor at HEC Paris, Hélène Löning was part of a panel discussing trust “in and after the pandemic”: “Earned, not Given” was the angle. “Trust now means such a different thing compared to a decade ago,” said Publicis CSO Carla Servano in setting the scene for the debate. “Nowadays, trust is a five-letter word with four-letter ramifications,” she said elliptically. Löning’s recent research has been attempting to clarify the debate in terms of trust between investors and entrepreneurs and between small startups and large corporations. “In society, ontological trust needs to be preserved. In business as in society, you need to set norms of trust in order to operate efficiently.” These, insisted Löning, reside on three pillars: competence, benevolence and integrity. “For this, you need to share a common set of values.”


© Women’s Forum


Such values are founded on self-worth, according to HEC Paris alumnus Agnès Pannier-Runacher (H95). The current French minister delegate for industry was a keynote speaker at the Forum: “I want to say to every man and woman hearing us today: believe in yourself. Trust that you can reach the top.” Fellow alumnus, Meka Brunel (H93) sounded a word of caution, however. “We should accept we are not superwomen,” said the CEO of the Gecina real estate group. “Having that mentality makes us feel guilty about our normal, everyday lives. We need help from each other!”


© Women’s Forum

Rich HEC Paris experience

Nevertheless, there was no defeatism in the speech by Ursula von der Leyen: “Nothing is inevitable,” she concluded. ”The pandemic is also an opportunity to rethink old patterns and rethink behavior. Let us take the opportunity of this disruption to push for change across the world’s ecosystems.”

© HEC Paris
HEC Paris volunteer students

The HEC Paris participants certainly had room for satisfaction after their involvement over the three days. The 30-plus student volunteers from the HEC Women in Leadership and Women in Business associations wrote up session summaries of each of the dozens of panel discussions, summaries which are to be transformed into articles for the Women’s Forum website.  In exchange, they were able to attend any and all the hundreds of panel discussions for free. It was also a richly satisfying experience for the staff members from the EMBA, MBA and Exed departments who tweeted the highlights throughout the Forum. Finally, the 11 academics (Ph.D., professors and alumni) involved with the Daring Circles initiatives prolonged their reflections on cross-industry research for long-term positive impact on women-driven issues.

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