How the World Economic Forum is Tackling Gender Equality—And Why It’s Not Enough

Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos 2018World Economic Forum/Flickr

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, the world’s political and corporate elite discussed challenges and solutions to “creating a shared future in a fractured world.” While the agenda focused on many themes—from the fourth industrial revolution to global integration and responsive leadership—there was a particularly strong emphasis on gender equality.

But what, exactly, does talking about gender at Davos mean for equality around the world?

“A Panel, Not a Manel” 

2018 was the first time in 48 years that the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting was co-chaired by an all-women panel. One of the co-chairs, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, said that Forum finally had a “real panel, not a manel.”

The seven female co-chairs and a number of other speakers raised issues of discrimination, harassment and pay inequality throughout the four days. Side events such as the Equality Lounge also highlighted the role of women in international affairs. But is this enough?

While the World Economic Forum has included more women in its debates, men still largely outnumber women in terms of attendees. In 2018, 21 percent of attendees were women, up from just 20 percent the year before. As some reporters have pointed out, the gathering in Davos is a reflection of the disheartening reality that men continue to dominate both politics and business.

As Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Bayanyima said during a panel, it takes power to change narratives. That’s why we need more women in positions of power to bring about change, whether in business or government. And if Davos brings together those with the greatest global political and economic power, then it’s a reminder that there are still not enough women in power to drive global social change.

Open, Global Discussion of Sexual Harassment

If the #MeToo campaign is bottom-up protest meant to get those in power to listen, then at Davos, it seemed to have worked.

Several sessions addressed the campaign as well as how to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace and in society more generally. The speakers offered their thoughts on the role of the media in exposing harassment and how education can help reduce violence. In particular, the leaders zeroed in on the role of businesses in tackling social norms that justify violence against women, driving home the idea that gender violence is not just a concern of governments and NGOs.

It’s an important achievement that top corporate leaders discussed sexual harassment at a global forum so widely covered by the media. It’s also significant that many CEOs claimed to understand their responsibility in countering sexual harassment in the workplace.

But we shouldn’t forget that it’s going to take time and more women at the top to actually change people’s attitudes and daily behaviors. After all, the problem is pervasive. Even Davos isn’t a place free of sexual harassment, with reports surfacing that some female attendees had to fend off “unwanted approaches.”

The Economic Case for Gender Equality

Since Davos mostly targets the private sector, it’s no surprise discussions around gender equality explored the economic impact of women’s empowerment. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out the economic benefits of hiring women, while activist Malala Yousazfai called for businesses to invest in young girls’ education, emphasizing how profitable it would be in the future. And in a clip that’s been making the rounds on social media, founder of Alibaba Jack Ma said, “if you want your company to be successful… women are the best.”

Making the economic case for more women in leadership positions is crucial. But the discussion shouldn’t just be about “white middle-class women in developed economies,” argued Forum participant Pia Mancini.

As Bayanyima reminded attendees, the meeting at Davos is comprised of executives from top organizations who employ thousands of women around the world, including in developing countries. Many of these women suffer inequality, oppression and harassment at work on a daily basis. Will the CEOs attending these panels in Switzerland really see the economic benefits of improving working conditions for all their female employees, from garment workers in Bangladesh to factory staff in China?

We can (and should) applaud the efforts of leaders in Davos to bring issues of gender equality to the world stage. It is, in the very least, another step toward changing global narratives through persistent media coverage.

But we can’t forget to ask whether ideas generated in an isolated Swiss resort actually resonate with the rest of the world. Gender equality is much more than equal pay policy in Canada or sexual harassment awareness at offices across Europe; it’s also about improving the conditions, wages and circumstances of women in homes and workplaces around the world.

When at least half of the World Economic Forum is filled with women, we’ll see what a truly diverse Davos might mean for equality. For now, don’t expect even “a real panel” at the Forum to change the world.


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