Critics have long blasted World Economic Forum, a Switzerland-based non-profit, for just how male-dominated its annual meeting is. Indeed, female representation at the gathering of business executives and world leaders has hovered in the teens in recent years, inching up to surpass the 20% threshold only last year.
But the “women at Davos” story takes on new urgency this year, as the #MeToo movement grips the business world, raising pressing questions about the treatment of women in the workplace and their share of corporate power. Can the World Economic Forum, maligned for years as an elite boys’ club, meet the #MeToo moment? Early signs indicate that—at the very least—it’s giving it a valid try.
In its most obvious nod to the on-going conversation, WEF in November announced the co-chairs for the annual meeting—seven women and no men:
Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Belgium
Fabiola Gianotti, Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, Switzerland
Isabelle Kocher, Chief Executive Officer, ENGIE, France
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Washington, D.C.
Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, IBM, USA
Chetna Sinha, Founder and Chair, Mann Deshi Foundation, India
Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway
At the five-day meeting itself, there are at least two panels that tackle #MeToo issues head-on—titled, “How Do We Stop Sexual Harassment?”and “Gender, Power, and Stemming Sexual Harassment.” (For context, there are about 150 events—panels, speeches, press conferences and Q&A sessions—on the WEF schedule for the week.) Beyond the official WEF program, there are several privately-sponsored breakfasts geared toward women’s equality and advancement, and The Equality Lounge, an events space that hosts panel discussions and interviews, will be on site again this week. Davos regulars give WEF credit for putting female speakers and the topic of women’s empowerment more front and center in recent years.
“They’ve brought more women’s topics into the conference,” says Barri Rafferty, president and CEO of public relations firm Ketchum, who cited Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appearance on a pay parity panel in 2016 as an example of the matter’s increased visibility. By comparison, “there was one women’s panel in a small room” several years ago, she said.
Pat Milligan, global leader of multinational client services at Mercer and head of its “When Women Thrive” initiative, pointed to this year’s all-female co-chairs evidence of a shift. “What has really changed is women’s voices are stronger and much louder,” she said. Women’s role at the annual meeting—as part of the program and among its participants—matters a great deal since the gathering is an unparalleled networking opportunity, bringing together nearly 2,000 leaders from the private and public sectors, and a platform for discussing some of the world’s most pressing issues. But for all the progress Milligan has noticed in the meeting’s tone, “the pure numbers don’t reflect that,” she says.
Indeed, WEF says this year’s female representation among participants is “over 21%.” It says that the share is “a higher proportion than at any previous meeting,” though it seems to be a rather incremental increase over last year, when women accounted for 21% of participants.
Rafferty says she looks at the event as a barometer of how women are doing in leadership roles overall, and she sees the mild uptick from last year as indicative of women’s advancement, yet Milligan puts it more bluntly: “Let’s not get lost; the underlying data is horrific.”
WEF’s own research, published in November, found that it will take 217 years to close the global economic gender gap because the divide between men and women—which takes into account women’s labor force participation, wage equality, and professional leadership—continues to widen.
So while the conversation around the issue of women’s professional success and #MeToo may be more prominent this year, Rafferty says, actual progress “is still very slow.”
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