Topless and with the words “SOS Davos” painted on their chests, members of the Ukrainian women’s rights group FEMEN clashed earlier this week with police in Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum being held. The resulting images of half-naked women yelling as helmeted men dragged them away in pink fog are a powerful statement about the disenfranchisement of women on their own.
While a woman, Christine Lagarde, heads the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University President, were speaking at the World Economic Forum, women are as much shut out from its corridors of power as ever. Lagarde, Sandberg and Faust were all speaking at a panel on women leadership but, as Bloomberg points out, at the next panel Lagarde spoke at, she was the sole woman; the others — central bankers, current and former cabinet ministers, the head of an international institution — were all men.
The number of female delegates at the 39-year-old forum remains stuck at 20 percent. If you exclude moderators of panels, the majority of the bankers and policy makers discussing “Global Financial Context” and the executives and lawmakers on the “Global Energy Context” were all male, says Bloomberg. A statement from the forum points out that 17 percent of delegates are now female, certainly an increase from 2002′s 9 percent; 22 percent of the speakers were women. Much was made of women’s achievements with Ernst & Young and Forbes magazine holding a reception for the “100 Most Powerful Women,” including Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
But even as we celebrate these women’s accomplishments, the task remains of increasing the numbers of women at all levels of the finance world. Huguette Labelle, chief of Transparency International and the only women of the forum’s six co-chairs, emphasizes that “we cannot move forward without much greater gender parity at all levels.” Women only comprise 17 percent of independent directors at companies in the Standard & Poor’s stock index, barely a change from 2007′s 16 percent level of 2007, according to a November report.
Speakers at a women’s leadership panel pointed out that CEOs need to go beyond “lip service” about having women in leadership positions, says Lubna Olayan, deputy chairwoman and CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Olayan Financing Co. Facebook’s Sandberg pointed out that “women are held back by the soft stuff that people don’t talk about.” The IMF’s Lagarde encouraged women to “explain, dare, stand up.”
It’s all good advice, though how exactly women can trust it will be all right for them to “dare” and “stand up” in a male-dominated corporate environment is far less easily articulated.
Why the Davos Man Doesn’t Get It
South Korean businesswoman Kim Sung Joo, who chaired the successful election campaign for her country’s first female president, made a key point about why we need more women at all levels of the finance world. “The debate is still dominated by males frustrated by the crisis created by male-oriented industries,” she noted, pointing out that the forum is overlooking a “shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge, Internet-based economy.” “Cheaper access” is needed to bring in a far wider “spectrum of delegates including younger leaders,” not to mention the forum’s own image as a gathering of suited businessmen sipping vins des glaciers, attending well-ordered panels in hotels while activists get dragged off by police outside.
It is not only FEMEN activists and women CEOs who think the “Davos man” has plenty of defects to warrant a “re-engineering” of the whole industry. The Economist cites a survey that only 18 percent of respondents think businessmen are telling the truth. The problem is that, for all the talk of global leadership,
People whose jobs require constant whizzing through airports often overestimate the extent of globalisation. Most other folk live in the same country all their lives. Most trade occurs within national borders. Nearly all politics is local. ….The best global leaders need to immerse themselves in local cultures.
What I find intriguing about this statement about how to reform global leadership is that it is similar to the point made by foreign policy expert and Princeton professor Ann-Marie Slaughter about how more women in foreign policy positions could really change the world:
But many women are more likely than many men to see the world from the bottom up and connect the dots, for example, between America’s living up to its word by preventing mass killing on a horrific scale in supporting the Libyan opposition against a murderous regime and beginning to change perceptions of the United States among young people not only in Libya but across the Middle East. And women add sheer diversity to the mix of issues we should rate as important; I well remember the horror of a male colleague at the idea that we would be working on food security, one of Clinton’s priorities.
“Ordinary folk trust Davos Man no more than they would a lobbyist for the Worldwide Federation of Weasels,” the Economist underscores. We need to make sure that “Davos Woman” does not simply created herself in the image of her male counterpart.
If she needs some inspiration she should, on the advice of South Korea’s Kim Sung Joo, take a look beyond the chanderlier-lit ballrooms and read the chests of the Ukrainian women the police are taking into custody.
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