Leading, and Not Lagging, at the INSEAD Women in Business Conference

Mona El Bajani

Many subjects were discussed at the second annual INSEAD Women in Business (IWiB) conference, from diversity and gender balance to retention and engagement in the workplace.  

Ilian Mihov, INSEAD’s Dean, opened the conference. He spoke on INSEAD’s efforts to achieve gender balance and how important it is to the community. This was followed by 2 talks by Pilasinee Kittikachorn, Partner and Managing Director of BCG Bangkok, and Michelle Simmons, General Manager of Southeast Asia at Microsoft. They both gave insightful talks, touching on the subjects of leadership advancement, talent management, the building of the right corporate and team cultures, as well as sharing their own personal success stories. Kay Formanek, founder and CEO of Diversity and Performance, then took us through a workshop that examined diversity on a deeper level, the unconscious biases we may have, and how it is essential for a leader to be aware of the talent blind spots they may have (check out Microsoft’s Unconscious bias training that was referred to here). This was then followed by a panel discussion on “Disruptions – Their Impact and Making the Most of Them.”  

The IWiB Conference, officially launched just over a year ago in November 2016, looks to “accelerate gender balance and more inclusive leadership and culture in organizations”. Considering that within the INSEAD community, women only represent 34% of current students and 17% of alumni, more light needs to be shed on these topics. Below are 5 takeaways that I thought were noteworthy from the conference.  

1- Strong Business Case for Diversity

A theme that was expressed throughout was the strong business case for diversity, within innovation and keeping up with change. Diversity drives performance, as numerous studies and research have proven. Particularly, this is relevant in the talent pool, the top- and bottom-line performance, increased creativity and innovation, customer congruence and higher employee engagement. Not only is it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially, but their employees are also happier, fall sick less often, and have longer tenors.  

2- Diversity is multi-dimensional 

Kay Formanek shared 5 dimensions of diversity during the workshop via a diagram, recreated above. The diagram truly shows how diversity is multi-dimensional and cosmopolitan. She shared that the many aspects of diversity are needed for innovation. The five dimensions explored were:

  • Internal Dimensions: the aspects of diversity over which we have no control; things we are born with
  • External Dimensions: aspects over which we have some control; things we have some choice over
  • Organisational Dimensions: aspects of culture found in work settings
  • Context: Environmental factors
  • Personality: likes, dislikes, values, beliefs


3- Diversity and Inclusion go hand in hand

Both diversity and inclusion are critical for our work survival going forward. They are both something we cannot loose sight of when we are thinking about the progress and rapidity of change in our current organizational environments. Michelle Simmons shared a metaphor for diversity and inclusion that encompasses the concept: diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance; but sometimes you need to get yourself on the dance floor too.  

4- Bringing a Paradigm Shift to all components of the Ecosystem

For there to be a real change in an organization towards more diversity and inclusion, a paradigm shift needs to happen in both a bottom-up and top-down approach. Working collaboratively in both directions to encourage all components of the ecosystem to adopt a growth mindset will create a domino effect. To be able to really listen, learn, be curious, as well as fall fast and get back up will encourage the paradigm shift needed.  

5- Involving Men

There was a lot of discussion about the need to involve (not just welcome) men in gender balance initiatives. The IWiB conference was one such initiative and unfortunately only a few men were present. Gender balance and diversity conversations should include men, as solutions should be created with everyone on board. Men as frontline advocates for equality and supporters of the diversity agenda will fast-track the progress of diversity programs.  

These are my top-level takeaways from the IWiB conference; a lot more was shared. Diversity is a life-long learning aspect of life and you could say it is even more unique at INSEAD, having such a large cultural diversity in the mix. Overall, there is a lot of potential for incredible progress in this area of focus, in terms of work culture, career building and advancement, leadership, and retention. I hope to help lead this initiative during my year at INSEAD with my fellow classmates, and to move forward in the true INSEAD spirit! Just over two weeks to go!