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Don’t blame the WEF for gender inequality at Davos

Don’t blame the WEF for gender inequality at Davos

This week, the world’s top politicians, policy makers, great minds and business people decamp to Davos in Switzerland for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The agenda is eclectic; the topics a challenging and fascinating mix of problems seeking solutions. But in one respect the guest list fails the basic test for any aspiring host or hostess: men outnumber women by more than four to one. And when it comes to diversity in other respects such as ethnicity or social background it isn’t much better.

It’s tempting to blame the organisers, the WEF itself, but this is unfair.

The delegates come from the corporate world and are chosen by the companies themselves. And they are mostly men. Women made up only 17% of delegates last year, which was actually a small improvement on the previous year. Amongst the academic and civil society guests, whose invitations are more directly influenced by the WEF, the proportion of women rises to a more respectable 25% and 20% respectively. Let’s not forget that, according the UN, only around 17% of government ministers are women and there are 37 states where women account for less than 10% of single or lower houses. Catalyst Research figures put the number of female CEOs in S&P 500 companies at 4.2%.

Progress is being made, however, and some of the most impressive figures on the global stage of our generation are women including Janet Yellen, chair of the US Federal Reserve; Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund; and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. But it’s not enough and progress on gender equality is simply too slow.

Perhaps the most sobering prediction at last year’s WEF was made by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director, UN Women, at the launch of the ‘He for She’ UN Women campaign, encouraging men to support women’s rights. She pointed out that at the current rate of progress: “A girl born during Davos 2015 will be 81 years old before she has gender parity.”

Put bluntly, we need more women at the top of the world’s most important organisations

Put bluntly, we need more women at the top of the world’s most important organisations if we want the delegates at Davos to be more evenly split between the sexes.

So how do we achieve that? The first point is to understand the strong economic case for gender balance in the economy. The evidence is very clear about the benefits – better use of skills leads to better productivity leading to a stronger economy overall. Government can show the way here, but business needs to play its part too. One of the concrete things it can do is to address the gender pay gap.

Shockingly the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently found gender employment gaps are 10% or higher in 15 of the G20 countries. Part of this gap is due to differential pay structures in different career paths.

For example the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in the UK recently found that women outnumber men in nearly two thirds of all degree courses. Yet male students still dominate many of the courses which lead to better pay such as engineering and some sciences. Nursing, social work and education are some of the courses most dominated by women and are lower paid than other professions.

This is only part of the explanation. Studies show that unconscious bias still affects women in terms of recognition, pay and promotion in the workplace, which is another reason the gender pay gap persists. For many women, the workplace is not meritocratic even though most organisations strive and indeed believe that their interview and assessment processes are fair.

Leaders need to take ownership for what is going on within their organisations

Leaders need to take ownership for what is going on within their organisations, educate themselves about how unconscious bias may be unfairly benefitting some parts of their workforce at the expense of others and take tangible steps to address it. The tools are there. We need visionary leaders of both sexes to use them effectively.

For those that do there is a real competitive advantage. After all, we know that mixed teams are better problem solvers – that’s as true in business as anywhere else.

And who knows – with a better balance of genders around the table, the annual meeting at Davos might be even more successful at solving the world’s problems in the years to come. Because, let’s face it – there are one or two issues out there right now where we need all the help we can get.

This article was originally published in ‘This is Money, thisismoney.co.uk’ on 17 January 2016

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