Davos still hasn’t solved its woman problem

By Helaine Olen
January 24, 2014

In 2011, the organizers of the World Economic Forum announced they wanted to do something about the lack of women at their annual January gathering in Davos, Switzerland. They informed their leading corporate sponsors that one of out every five people they were sending were sending to the annual conference in the Swiss Alps would need to be a woman. In prior years, that number had hovered around 15-17%.

Since then, the percentage of women attending WEF’s gathering of business and political elites hasn’t changed much at all: in 2013 it was 17%. This year it’s 15%.

Those corporations just didn’t want to play along, apparently. Instead of pushing the point, the organizers of Davos have decided to pander to the biases of the more than 2,600 movers and shakers whose employers pay approximately $40,000 per head to attend the get-together. WEF spokesman Adrian Monck told Quartz this week, “We’re on the front line of reflecting the world as it is, not how we want it to be.”

A person needs to be what is considered “significant” to receive the Davos nod, but traditional power structures are still too unbalanced to give the holders of the coveted Davos invites many women to choose from. The companies that make up the Fortune 500 have 23 female CEOs between them. Less than 20% of the United States Congress are women, and the United Kingdom is little better, at 23%. Even Barack Obama has come under fire for the relative paucity of the second sex in his inner circle of advisers. This year, 23% of the US government delegation at Davos are women, a group which includes newly appointed Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

So much for this year’s conference theme, “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.”

A few longtime activists are throwing up their hands. Lucy P. Marcus, the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, who has attended Davos in the past, wrote in a recent widely circulated Facebook post “If they haven’t sorted it out by now, it makes you wonder if they really have the will.” She added, “If the WEF doesn’t think that women are vital and relevant to sort it once and for all, then how vital or relevant is the WEF?”

Unfortunately, it is all too relevant. For women, just like men, Davos is a way of signifying status. As Felix Salmon wrote:

The secret to Davos’s success is no secret at all: you invite a very carefully hand-picked group of people to travel thousands of miles to a small and remote Swiss town, and then ask them to stay there, generally, for a good four or five days. You remove them from their normal gatekeepers and power structures, and force them to mingle in a space which is too small to fit them all comfortably. The result is a series of more or less serendipitous meetings, and an opportunity for the global elite to get to know each other in a largely agenda-free context.

In a recent interview in the London Evening Standard, Linda Scott, a professor at Oxford’s business school, reminded everyone that any group of (mostly) men asking how to improve the world is almost certainly going to miss something.

Scott calls the larger world of informal work by women the “Double X Economy”; she used the example of building schools in developing countries without making sure female students have access to sanitary pads (so they can leave the house without risking embarrassment) to drive home this point. But there are plenty of developed world examples. The world of work, while seemingly fair, effectively excludes many women.

When I emailed Scott this morning to ask about Davos specifically, she was quite blunt. “If the Davos leadership really wants women in the conversation, they can find them. I think it is purely a matter of sincerity and intentionality,” she wrote.

In other words, Davos is about power and who has it. And women, for the most part, do not.

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