Shelley Zalis, mainstay of the elite conference circuit, pitches gender equity to the Davos set

The L.A.-based entrepreneur is a regular attendee at every A-list conference, urging Fortune 500 CEOs to close the gender gap

In a two-story glass house set against the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps, Shelley Zalis preached the gospel of gender equity. 

The elite audience in Zalis’ Equality Lounge make up the boardrooms and C-suite offices of Fortune 500 companies. Everyone there was an attendee at last month’s World Economic Forum, the exclusive annual gathering in Davos where admission alone costs tens of thousands of dollars. 

It was a fitting setting: Her audience would have to break through plenty of glass — ceilings, walls, floors — to achieve the kind of gender parity Zalis believes in. In her perfect world, women don’t just make as much as their male counterparts, or get promoted at the same rates. In Zalis’ vision, women also feel respected and represented and, most importantly, they get the support they need to take care of their families and get back to work.

“We are losing our best leaders to caregiving,” Zalis told Jewish Insider in a phone interview from her Los Angeles office, 6,000 miles from Davos. Flying around the world to elite gatherings and hobnobbing with CEOs, giving them a gentle nudge to address their own shortcomings on gender issues, is what Zalis is now best known for. 

Last month, she was at Davos in Switzerland and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and in the fall she set up an Equality Lounge at COP27, the global climate conference, in Egypt. Her next two stops are Cannes Lions, the international creativity festival, in France and SXSW in Austin. As reliably as one can expect to overpay for food at these gatherings, one can expect to see the blonde, impeccably dressed Zalis and her Equality Lounges. She started going to many of the world’s A-list confabs 10 years ago, and soon after that, in 2015, she launched the Female Quotient, a company that provides research and consulting services to major corporations on gender issues. She is both a thorn in the side of the executives she schmoozes with, and a partner; the Davos Equality Lounge was a $2 million undertaking that was sponsored by, among others, Meta, JP Morgan Chase and Deloitte.

“It’s a safe space to have conscious conversations all around closing the gender gap,” she said. It’s a big undertaking: The World Economic Forum recently released a report saying that it would take 132 years to close the gender gap. In a TIME Magazine op-ed, Zalis argued that CEOs should commit to a “moonshot mindset,” much like President John F. Kennedy in the space race.

Before her second career as a “chief troublemaker” — her self-proclaimed title — Zalis was an entrepreneur in the field of market research, helping spur the transition to the online surveys that now populate the internet. Starting her own business was something she did out of practicality. It was not due to any overt sexism, Zalis said, but rather an understanding that she would not be able to balance motherhood and work if she stayed at a large company. 

“I just knew that being an employee in a big company, starting a family and working in a job, that was going to be a problem for me. Because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to work long hours,” Zalis, who is 60, explained. “I didn’t feel like it was discrimination or anything like that. I just thought, you know, how am I going to be the primary caregiver and stay late and travel and be a nice Jewish mom? None of my friends were working.”

Women have been wondering, in op-ed pages and books and conversations with friends and at new mom groups, whether they can “have it all,” as the saying goes. 

Shelley Zalis at Cannes

More than three decades since Zalis first pondered those questions when she was a young working mom, the caregiving problem has improved some, but not enough. “I don’t even remember taking maternity leave,” Zalis said. 

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires public employers and companies with more than 50 workers to allow employees to take 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or a sick family member, although FMLA does not require that the companies pay employees during their leave. Now, at least, paid maternity leave is the norm at large corporations. Many offer paternity leave, too, but “it’s elective,” she noted. “Men don’t take it. They feel it shows a sign of weakness.” The U.S. is the only Western nation that does not mandate paid parental leave, and 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that less than a quarter (23%) of U.S. workers have access to paid parental leave.

But in the U.S., where there is no national parental leave policy and the companies that do offer it often place limits on the amount of time taken, women still face the same questions — who will take care of their kids when they go back to work after three months? The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, making parents drop everything at the last minute when their child has to stay home from school after potential exposure to the virus. 

“Caregiving is so expensive. It’s unaffordable. So women are just opting out, because it costs more for a nanny than their paychecks,” explained Zalis. Her solution was splitting parenting responsibilities equally with her husband, a surgeon. “I also didn’t bake the cookies,” she said with a laugh. “I would buy them and make them look pretty on the plate.”

Zalis also always had Shabbat dinners at home with her family. “[Judaism] is core to the essence — family is the most important piece of who we are,” she said. “I come from a very Jewish family.” Her philanthropic priorities include AIPAC, the Jewish federation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

As she advanced in her career, Zalis began to notice that there weren’t a lot of women in her meetings, or at the conferences she attended. She had seen women be overly competitive with each other, thinking — not incorrectly — that there wouldn’t be room for more than one woman at the top. One year, ahead of CES in Las Vegas, Zalis invited a group of women to go with her to the massive electronics showcase and walk through the convention center together. 

“I never experienced that before, and it was such a remarkable thing for me. I felt so safe and secure,” she said. “There was such a scarcity of jobs at the top, everyone was [usually] digging at each other and pushing each other down.” That conference was where the Equality Lounge’s earlier iteration, the Girls Lounge, was born. (The name was meant to be a response to boys’ clubs — what she viewed as an institution to disrupt.) 

The Girls Lounge started as a space for women to gather at these conferences, to network and talk and gossip away from the male-dominated crowds. Four years later, it evolved into the Equality Lounge, described as “a place for conscious leaders.” Men were invited in. She has now connected with many thousands of the world’s most powerful people to spread her message, but Zalis acknowledges that things have gotten worse for women since the pandemic. 

So with sponsorships from major corporations that she knows need to change, how does Zalis ensure that their CEOs are committed to the cause and not just paying lip service by putting their names on her splashy branding? 

“It’s all about measurement and accountability,” Zalis said — and money. “A lot of the work that’s been done so far, most CEOs just hand off diversity to their DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] groups. And diversity groups have no accountability, no budget. And that’s been the problem. We’re going backwards.” 

Zalis, perky and indefatigable, is a true believer in her cause and her method. When asked whether she finds the nonstop travel to nearly every marquis conference around the globe exhausting, she smiled. 

“When you have this purpose, this passion, you’re unstoppable,” she said. Zalis is now a grandmother, and she still gathers with her kids most Friday nights for Shabbat dinner in L.A. 

She has it all. Can other women?

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