They've made it despite the odds. But only after years of tireless work in a male-dominated world. DW's Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports from the fourth "Fortune Most Powerful Women" summit in London.
Carolyn McCall is no stranger to the spotlight, but even she looks like she can't quite believe they've all come to London's posh Rosewood Hotel because of her - their role model. But in the world of businesswomen, the 53-year-old Brit is a super star - the quintessential leader.
McCall is the chief executive of Easyjet and has managed to do what many deemed impossible when she took the job back in 2010. Alongside Ryanair, Easyjet is now Europe's most successful low-cost carrier. Under McCall, the company's revenue has doubled and the airline now flies to 70 European destinations.
Cheap and on time
So, what's behind her success?
"Low fares and good services go hand in hand," McCall said. But that wasn't what Easyjet was known for, when she over the reins. The company's reputation had hit rock bottom, and customers were running away in droves, turning instead to the competition. To win back customers, one of the first things she did was to make sure that all flights left and arrived on time.
But McCall knew this was just a drop in the bucket and that there would be even greater challenges ahead. Sure, she was known as a successful executive, having previously headed the Guardian Media Group, but she was far from an aviation expert. Meanwhile, Easyjet was racking up losses, and executives were at loggerheads with each other.
Still, she said, "I can do it." Five years later, the Easyjet chief is widely regarded as one of the UK's most successful businesswomen.
The women in the audience are glued to her lips. Many of them can tell similar stories of tough management decisions and the pressure exerted by shareholders and colleagues.
The "Most Powerful Women" conference in London brings together successful female executives who are invited by the US magazine "Fortune." Among them are bankers, entrepreneurs, lawyers and consultants, mainly from Europe, but also from the US, India, China and the Middle East. And all of them are surrounded by men cultivating their own male-dominated networks.
50 billion and 9 kids
Helena Morrissey is a living example of female power. The slender woman is in charge of Newton Investment, a 50-billion-pound (69-billion-euro, $78-billion) fund. She's a staunch opponent of a female quota system and has made a splash with her "30% Club," launched in 2010. Its goal is to increase the number of women represented on the UK's top 100 corporate boards to 30 percent by 2015, but through voluntary, rather than mandatory, means.
"At the moment we stand at 23.6% representation, this is up from 12.6 percent," Morrisey said proudly.
One of the big challenges is to get companies to broaden their horizon when looking for candidates to fill open board positions. Many simply aren't aware that for each male candidate, there's often an equally qualified female. By recommending suitable talent, the initiative makes sure that women increasingly pop up on directors' radars.
Today, the 30% Club has expanded to include branches in South Africa, the US, Ireland and Hong Kong. And it's not just women who support the initiative. The organization also counts several male top managers among its members.
Emerging from her father's shadow
Ana Botin, head of Spanish banking dynasty Santander Group, is also in London to share her experiences. Today, the 54-year-old scion is one of the world's most powerful banking executives. But this wasn't always the case.
For years, she lived in the shadow of her notorious father, Emilio Botin. When he died in 2014, the board of directors unanimously appointed her chair of the Group. After graduating Harvard Business School and an eight-year stint at JP Morgen, she returned to Spain to work for Santander, Europe's second-biggest institution. In 2010, she took over at the helm of Santander UK.
When Botin took over from her father, she didn't miss a beat. She soon made headlines for her decisive leadership, replacing several key figures at the top and ringing in a new era for the company that left no room to rest on the company's laurels.
But it wasn't a tough decisions, she told the audience in London. After all, it wasn't her first time working for the family business.
"It's always easier to change from inside," said Botin. "The biggest challenge is to find the right talent."
Image is (almost) everything
One thing her father taught her early on was that being a leader is about more than being the best, it's also about projecting the right image.
"I just concentrated on doing the best I could. But I learned that wasn't enough," reflected Botin.
The women in the audience nodded their heads knowingly.