Thursday 24 October 2019

Maeve Dineen: Gender equality still has a long way to go at Davos

As you will guess, it is not something I attend every weekend, but on Friday night I found myself at 'The Forbes' 100 most influential women dinners in Davos. An event not for the faint hearted.

Women attending this annual Alpine schmoozefest of the global super-elite find themselves in a peculiar place: They are members of that elite -- but relatively recent members with a minority status.

To "enhance" the dinner conversation, each table was given a discussion topic to debate over the course of the evening. Our topic was: the role of women in leadership.

My table was made up of a fairly eclectic mix of media executives, voluntary organisation directors, academics and corporate CEOs.

One woman opened the debate by suggesting that women lead with their emotions.

Not a good start. I could almost feel the temper rising in the corporate chief who was sitting next to me.

"Don't tell me you subscribe to the theory that if Lehman brothers was Lehman sisters we wouldn't be in this mess," she barked.

She couldn't see the sense in it all and I have to say I found myself agreeing with her.

It's true that many women are risk-averse and may look differently at dodgy derivatives, but those tend to be the women who wouldn't be seen dead working in a bank anyway.

The real issue is getting more women into business and leadership in the first place.

Worry about their leadership style, then.

After all, despite a new quota regime aimed at getting more women to attend the event, the picture seen at Davos is hardly unique: most of the global business and political elite are men.

Personally, I am rather cynical about quotas; in my experience they tend to irritate not just men, but many women also.

But the bottom line is, women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world.

The numbers tell the story quite clearly. Of 190 heads of state, nine are women; and the number of corporate level females in companies across the world is around 17pc -- and despite all the policies and academic research into gender equality, these numbers have not moved since 2002 because we continue to look at the wrong issues that block women from the workforce.

One of the more impressive women at the resort was Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

Ms Sandberg offered ambitious women three key pieces of advice: grab that seat at the table. Women she said, never sit at the table in any meeting, they are always happy to sit back. Men will always sit at the boardroom table.

Be savvy when choosing a domestic partner: the most important career choice a woman makes is who she marries and "lean forward" at work before planning a family. If women can get enough traction early in their careers before taking a maternity break they are more likely to feel more compelled to return. That will raise the chance of more women rising to the top.

But as I was leaving the plush event, I shared the taxi with another Davos minority: the Davos wife.

Since everyone there is defined by a badge that reveals their name and job title, fur coat-clad wives turn into second-class citizens.

"These women don't realise how good they have it," one woman explained.

"Everyone knows us (wives) by our badges because we are forced to wear a plain white name tag," she said.

The only position lower is that of a Davos mistress -- they usually don't get a badge at all.

It seems that gender equality at Davos still has a long way to go.

Irish Independent

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