The World Economic Forum in Davos ended recently. This year, for the first time, Davos was chaired by a panel comprised exclusively of women leaders.

This year’s slogan was “Creating a shared future in a fractured world.” So how did Davos take on the gender gap, and what were the takeaways?

Davos has its own gender diversity issue

Davos’ female chairpanel was humourously touted as a ‘panel, not a manel‘, but in reality the WEF needs to shake off the spectre of the ‘Davos Man’ stereotype – the avatar of a bias that infiltrates most businesses.

One of the chairs,  Norwegian PM Erna Solberg, emphasised this with an anecdote about having herself ‘mansplained’ to, despite being the most qualified person in the room!

Behind the scenes, the World Economic Forum has been positively addressing its very own gender image since 2011. It has aimed to introduce at least one woman for every five senior executives that attended. Female participation increased significantly from 9% to 15% between 2001 and 2005 [Fortune]. 

In 2016, 18% of the WEF attendees were female, and this number increased to 21% in 2017. It seems to have been the same this year, although Barri Rafferty, president and CEO of Ketchum, has suggested those numbers could be skewed.

“Are you a spouse?” Yes, I was asked that question more than once during the World Economic Forum in Davos. In fact, the number of female spouses attending the event makes the number of official female attendees seem much larger than it is.

 The gender equality message is louder than ever

“Without proper gender diversity, companies will fail”, claims a report by Miki Tsusaka. “91% of women surveyed said their employer had a diversity initiative, but that only 27% reported any impact from such programmes”.

The WEF’s Closing the Gender Gap Project aims to create global and national platforms to advance economic gender parity and increase workplace opportunities for five million women by 2020.

Industry Disruptors Will Affect Women More Than Men

A ‘reskilling revolution‘ is vital.

“Men and women who are at risk of displacement currently have very different options for finding new jobs – women have about half the opportunities that men have.” 

“…We need concerted efforts by businesses, policy-makers and various stakeholders to think differently about workforce planning – and to work with each other. We need retraining initiatives that combine reskilling programmes with income support and job-matching schemes to fully support those undergoing this transition.” – Saadia Zahidi Vesselina, Stefanova Ratcheva,
Till Leopold

Progressive Policymaking is Essential

Canda’s Justin Trudeau espoused some of the strongest gender rhetoric in his speech, holding national child care policies to account. 

“We should be encouraging women – and men – to make the best decision for their family situation. In Canada, we’ve given parents more options for parental leave, and invested billions in affordable, high quality childcare… helping [single parent] families has been a key driver of Canada’s recent economic growth.” 

Trudeau also took aim at the lack of transparency in equality statistics. Canada is “in the process of passing legislation that would require federally incorporated companies to disclose information about their diversity policies” he revealed, highlighting a fundamental problem:  90% of countries have legal barriers to gender equality.

EQ is increasingly valuable, and “our idea of ambition is a myth”

Alibaba founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma, whose senior management team is 37% female, spoke about the importance of making emotional decisions

“To gain success a person will need high EQ; if you don’t want to lose quickly you will need a high IQ, and if you want to be respected you need high LQ – the IQ of love.” 

“Dispel the ambition myth”, writes Miki Tsusaka, “Our research clearly shows that women are just as ambitious as men at the start of their careers. And in the right corporate culture, women (and mothers) maintain that drive and advance. It’s crucial not to make assumptions.”

According to Erna Solberg and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the way forward is obvious: To challenge the ‘cosy group think’ of the boardroom with real gender equivalence

simply means making the most of everybody’s talents. This is a challenge for any country; a task from which every country would benefit. It is a universal mission. 

There’s a long way to go

If Davos 2018 was to be an attempt at a rebranding exercise, it was largely successful – the positive message of change was supported by at least a sense that the gender gap was being taken seriously among industry leaders – however this is coming four decades into the WEF’s life cycle.

[Barri Rafferty said] she has attended Davos four times since 2012 and noticed that one organisation’s “girls lounge” recently changed its name to “equality lounge.”

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation,  said that when she first started attending the meeting 20 years ago, it was full of men in suits — “a corporate jamboree.”

“There were so few of us women, we were almost like an afterthought,” 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. [Source]

Saadia Zahidi, head of the education, gender and work system initiative at the Forum, said the push for more equal representation is a slow climb, says the Washington Post.

“The longer term goal is to ensure that [women’s representation] should not be a surprise.”