Gender Inequality At The World Economic Forum Isn't A Davos Problem, It's A Worldwide Problem

Employees of EnBW, an EDF subsidiary in Berlin, work at their desk 13 October 2003. AFP PHOTO / Johannes EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

As the financial and political elite of the world gather for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there is more than purse size that serves as a homogenizing factor for the 2,500 participants — not only are event attendants amongst the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in the world, they are almost all men. Women comprise only 17 percent of those present in Davos this year, and though that number might seem like a vast under-representation of the economic elite women in the workforce, the sad fact of the matter is that women are technically overrepresented at the World Economic Forum when compared to their presence in business and politics. So while the issue of gender inequality must be addressed at Davos, where attendants are, as The Guardian suggests, "globe-trotting elite, disconnected from their home countries after spending too much time in the club-class lounge," the more pervasive and more insidious problem lies in the world at large — Davos is nothing but a microcosm of the mis- and under-representation of strong, powerful women across the globe.

Of the 2,500 attendants of the four-day conference in Switzerland, a mere 425 are women. In the 45- to 60-year-old age demographic, where the majority of attendants fall, men outnumber women nearly seven to one, as per data provided by the World Economic Forum and The Guardian. Whereas this skew is somewhat less pronounced at the youngest end of the spectrum, where women are more or less, or in some cases, even outpace their 20-something male counterparts in terms of representation, when taken at large, it is painfully apparent that women are woefully absent from one of the most elite gatherings in the world. 

So, why the snub? Is the WEF purposefully over-inviting men in order to keep the ladies out of the boys' club? Or is the trend at Davos simply indicative of the gender landscape at large?

While 17 percent seems to be — or rather, is — an embarrassingly small proportion, the reality of female representation in positions of power and leadership across the globe is sadder still. According to data gathered by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Canadian Board Diversity Council, only 11 percent of company board directors globally are women. Worse yet, only 8 percent of the international heads of government are women (Hillary, where are you?), and only 6 percent of heads of state are female. And least promising of all, only 3.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEO's have two X chromosomes. So when taken into consideration, Davos has been rather generous in extending their invitations. 

It is both insulting and deeply problematic that the 140 countries participating in this year's WEF collectively felt that less than 20 percent of the most powerful and influential people in the world were women, particularly when women comprise greater than 50 percent of the global population. Attendants, who will be discussing growth and stability, crisis and cooperation, society and security, and innovation and industry, considered the four key themes of the global economy, will hear the opinions of men five times as frequently as they will hear the opinions of their female counterparts, and at a forum that is, ostensibly, meant to strive towards some sort of global parity, it is deeply unsettling and rather ironic that there is such a distinct lack of equality when it comes to gender representation.

Sure, it's not Davos' fault that the corporations don't seem to place women on their boards or in their c-suites, or that country governments simply aren't run by women nearly as frequently as they are run by men, but as an organization that seeks to better understand and indeed improve the global economy, it is not enough to reflect a global trend — the WEF needs to be setting a new one altogether. 

Women play an integral role in economies across the world, and as female participation in the workforce has increased, so too has global prosperity, according to numerous reports and studies. In the 28 years between 1980 and 2008, 552 million women began to work, and now account for 43 percent of the agricultural labor force of developing countries, feeding their families and their fellow citizens. Despite their increased rates of participation, women are still underpaid when compared to their male colleagues and co-workers, and a UN Women study suggested that "per capita income would rise by 14 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030 in 15 major countries if women's paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men's."

Furthermore, studies have shown that companies with women at the helm perform better than those without a female presence. As Julie Zeilinger of Mic noted, 

...nonprofit research organization Catalyst found that, on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the lowest in terms of return on equity, sales and invested capital. Another study demonstrated that over a four-year period, companies with three or more female corporate directors outperformed those devoid of women by 84% on return on sales and 60% on return on invested capital.
Simply put, it makes economic sense to include women in powerful positions, rather than relegating them to lower visibility, lower impact roles. It is not enough for companies to simply claim 50 percent of their employees as women — these women must be in boardrooms and in leadership roles, not just filling a quota.

According to estimates released last year by the WEF, we've still got 79 years, 11 months, three weeks, and four days to go before achieving gender inequality in governments and businesses. But according to consultancy EY, we can speed up this process by following three simple steps: 1) illuminate the path to leadership, 2) speed up culture change with corporate policy change, and 3) establish a supportive environment. In short, companies and other organizations must "demonstrate what is possible and show [women] career opportunities that match their skills and ambition," create a sense of work-life balance that, to some extent, eases the choice between career and family for women, and finally, "eliminate conscious and unconscious bias" against women in the workplace.

Speaking of achieving gender parity is no longer enough, and has not been sufficient for far too long. In order to finally close the gap between men and women, we must make a conscious effort to not only provide opportunities, but also to encourage women to dream bigger. Although there are few role models in the industry today, the women who have served as trailblazers in politics, in business, in science, and in academia, should be celebrated for their achievements and lauded for their accomplishments, not only as women, but also as important members of society. Only then can we possibly hope to bring conferences like that in Davos to the 21st century.

Images: Getty Images (4)

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