DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters Breakingviews) - Davos is having its #MeToo moment. For the first time, the annual World Economic Forum summit in the mountain Swiss ski resort is being chaired entirely by women. Gender is a theme of high-level panel discussions and cocktail parties, like one hosted by JPMorgan that encourages invitees to bring along a member of the fairer sex or a male advocate for women. It’s a conscious attempt to redress the low female attendance at the gathering of rich and powerful, but the gesture is about as far as it can go.
The WEF’s senior ladies line-up comprises seven women ranging from International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde to Indian social activist and microfinance champion Chetna Sinha. The cast was announced in November after allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein prompted a wide-ranging movement confronting afresh all kinds of injustices against women including unequal pay.
The ensuing scandal has put the gender imbalance at the Davos summit into sharp focus. It’s not just that some of the whispered bad behaviour of past male summiteers will no longer be tolerated. Women account for just over one in every five attendees at this year’s summit. The figure has been rising steadily from just 9 percent in 2002. The WEF even introduced a quota in 2011 requiring strategic partner companies to have at least one female in a delegation of five – similar to how regulators in parts of the world now demand a number of women on corporate boards.
Although that turnout seems low, the summit technically attracts its fair share of females. Women account for just 6 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives and, globally, for just 18 percent of ministerial positions, Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and work at the WEF points out. If the Davos crowd is supposed to reflect the prevailing balance of power, the WEF scores better than an execrable average.
Imposing tighter quotas would almost certainly help increase the number of female participants but, if it forced organisations to arbitrarily invite women, diluting the presence of decision-makers, it might detract from the pull of the world’s most exclusive gathering of political and business leaders. That would make Davos, like the #MeToo movement, more politically correct but potentially less formidable.
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