NEW YORK — Work and family challenges, the issue of why more women haven't made it into the corporate suite and China's economic power were points of discussion Tuesday at a breakfast that drew top female executives — as well as dozens of men.
"Women have gained freedom," said Shelley Lazarus, chairman and chief executive officer of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. "There are lots of options, and they are balancing a husband, three children and a business trip….I think they're saying, ‘I want to be home with my children. I have this for a brief period of time, and I want to experience it.'"
In addition to Lazarus, speakers at the event, "Women in Power: Views from the Top," were Suzy Welch, co-author of "Winning" and former editor of the Harvard Business Review; Catherine R. Kinney, president and co-chief operating officer of the New York Stock Exchange, and Dr. Caroline A. Kovac, general manager, Healthcare and Life Sciences, IBM. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo moderated.
The discussion at the Four Seasons here was presented by The Week and the The Conference Board. Some 200 people attended, including about 60 men.
Kinney agreed women have a lot more freedom, but said not all have the option of staying home. She said companies need to develop policies that are more friendly to female executives.
Lazarus said the advertising industry always has been about talent, and her company will go to great lengths to keep a talented executive.
"It's amazing what you'd do to keep that talent," she said. "That's the hope for the industry, in general. If you want that person, we'll figure out how to keep that person on their terms," she said.
She recalled that, when she started out, 90 percent of consumers were women. She would be in a business meeting with all men discussing a product such as tampons, and they would turn to her and say, "Well, Shelly, what do women think?"
IBM's Kovac said she sees a lot of women who contribute ideas, organize the team and then stand back."I don't know how many women are comfortable standing at the very top," said Kovac. She doesn't believe a woman can be pushed to the top. She has to want to be there.
When Welch travels around the country, she is constantly asked first about business ethics, and then, "What can I do to get promoted?" and finally, "What do I do about China?" Having recently been to China, she said she observed an "incredible fierceness, and hunger, and people jumping out of their seats, asking, ‘How do you start a business?' There was a hunger and desire to explode and take off. I saw no hand-wringing over work-life balance."
Welch was asked how she dealt with crisis, in particular, her handling of seeing her personal life become news because of her relationship with former General Electric chairman and ceo Jack Welch, now her husband. Welch said she wouldn't advise anyone to take her approach. She said when news broke about the liaison [Welch was married], the pair didn't want to talk to the media. But in retrospect, she said she should have been more forthcoming. "We hunkered down. We stuck with the people we trusted and loved," said Welch.
All the women agreed about the power of the Internet, but felt that it would never replace 30-second TV spots.
Lazarus pointed out that digital has transformed what one can do, and that her ad agency used to dream about being able to talk to its consumers one-on-one. "Now you can, and they talk back and you can engage in a discussion. That's why so many dollars are flowing into new media."
She described one of the best applications she's found for digital advertising. In Asia, Nestlé is advertising on cell phones. Each day at 3 p.m., Nestlé downloads two complete recipes for dinner and it's used by millions of women as they shop in the supermarket. "It's a brilliant application of portable information," said Lazarus.
Turning to opportunities in China, Lazarus said the agency employs 1,000 people there.
"They've recognized the value of brand-building. There's an opportunity since they haven't grown up with brands and marketing and have no instincts. They are so ambitious. They're going to figure brands out. When they do, they'll be great consumers and competitors. India has an enormous middle class, great minds and a huge population, and it's a great opportunity."Lazarus said that, in India, it costs about one-seventh of the price to produce materials for ad campaigns. But her people would rather have production close by, so they can keep an eye on it and wring someone's neck if they don't like the way it turned out. "People always get in the way of what can be economically advantageous," she said.
Taking a cue from "The Graduate," Bartiromo asked Jack Welch, who was seated in the audience, what he thought was the most dynamic industry. "Biotechnology," he responded. "All the venture capital money is going there, and for a lot of people, that's where the action is."
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