BLOG: WOW Festival – Opening Session

I loved Southbank Centre’s Woman of the World Festival last year. So, with such high expectations, I was worried this year’s festival wouldn’t live up to my previous experience, but I was wrong to ever doubt it! If you’ve never been, the festival is full of talks on subjects from ‘Feminist Economics’ to ‘Women and Alcohol’, as well as practical workshops and cultural events related to women around the world. But my favourite things about the festival is hearing speakers interesting, insightful and often touching stories.

If you’ve never been, the festival is full of talks on subjects from ‘Feminist Economics’ to ‘Women and Alcohol’, as well as practical workshops and cultural events related to women around the world. But my favourite things about the annual event is hearing all the speakers interesting, insightful and often touching life stories.

As before, I only had time to visit the opening day on Friday, and not the full three-day shebang. Here is a brief overview and some inspiring quotes from the opening talk, which is firmly now one of my favorite parts of the day.

Opening Talk

Firstly, I want to say I have huge admiration for organiser Jude Kelly, who chairs the opening discussion.  She’s a working-class woman from Liverpool who is sort of like a wise aunt, but so much more, obviously! And what an amazing job she has curating WOW! (And what an amazing job she does).

Marieme Jamme. Teaching women tech.



During part of the first opening hour-and-a-half, Marieme Jamme, an award-winning technologist, spoke about educating women. Her goal is to empower 1 million young women and girls globally to become coders by 2030 and to align with the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

She highlighted how women often lack skills and this makes it very difficult to get work or for her to support herself and her children.

Jamme arrived as a refugee from Senegal to England and lived in what she described as the overly white suburbs of Guildford where she eventually started a coding club for ‘yummy mummies’.

“If one woman from Senegal can learn how to code, to build her business, and to be proud of herself, we all can,” she said.

Adding: “I am very unusual and I like to say that.” Ahmen!


I must admit, I was most impressed that Helena Morrissey, the author of A Good Time to be a Girl and head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management, which has £894 billion of assets under management (according to Wikipedia), has nine children. NINE CHILDREN. Her husband gave up work to become a stay at home dad after the birth of their fourth child.

She talked about being a woman in a patriarchal business world and how it is better to be ‘authentically yourself’ than to try and be like a man.

“Show me your scars,” she said.

They all make us what we are, especially women. She suffered sexism in some of her earlier jobs but had one longstanding role where her boss was extremely supportive, in particular, of her choice to have many children, even defending her against other male colleagues. She’s a great example of what women can achieve when supported in the workplace.


Vivian Hunt, managing partner UK & Ireland at McKinsey & Company, also spoke about women in business, a great repetitive them this year.

She said in the UK we could add 5 – 6 percentage points to the economy by more female participation. A third of this benefit would come from woman simply working more. This makes perfect sense when you consider how many women fall out of work after childbearing and can’t get back in at all, let alone at the same level. A third comes from women working in more productive sectors (science and analytics based – currently male-dominated industries) and the last third comes from woman merely doing a few more hours work a week (as little as 30 mins more would have an impact). This would come from more flexibility in the workplace.

“Most women want to work more but need the flexibility to do this,” she said.

More women in the UK are working in our least productive sectors. However, companies with more women in leadership roles perform economically better by 21%.  (There has been countless studies that prove this.)

Halla Tomasdottir. Woman extraordinaire .



I thought Halla Tomasdottir was fantastic. If you’ve not heard of her, which I actually hadn’t, Halla is a businesswoman from Iceland. She stood for president in 2016 and won 27.9% of the vote, the second highest share after that of the winner who got 39.1%. She had a warm but commanding manner, a bit like Obama.

Maybe you’ll remember that Iceland actually went bankrupt right around the time of the financial crisis due to the collapse of the financial sector. Halla’s firm was the only one that didn’t lose any money, according to her. She has since started a Profit with Principles initiative.

Halla started her talk by telling us about a day in 1975 when 90% of Icelandic women took the day off: did nothing at all, no housework, no work, no childcare. And nothing worked.

“We [women] don’t have a competence gap, we have a confidence gap,” she said.

This is something I can really relate to. Her answer: meet fear with joy.

Enjoy yourself and remember, she said: “We need more humble leaders rather than confidence ones.”

“Everything starts with courage. Even when I lack the confidence, I muster the courage: be more courageous,” she said.

Words to live by, I’d say.

You can read about last year’s festival here.

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