How to make the world work better for women?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 22 January 2018 20:04 GMT

A student works on her computer sitting on the steps at Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women's University in Peshawar, Pakistan, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Fayaz Aziz

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The global gender gap is widening in the workplace - a problem facing business leaders and politicians at the World Economic Forum

As business, political and philanthropic leaders brave the snow in search of a cure for global ills at this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss Alps, they may well wonder whether the traditional "Davos Man" has been usurped by "Davos Woman".

This year, for the first time, the annual gathering that brings together some of the planet's most powerful people to chew over its problems is being chaired by a group made up entirely of women.

The seven female co-chairs range from Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to the heads of IBM and Engie, and Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

"This year at the World Economic Forum the challenge of female empowerment is... firmly on the agenda, because giving women and girls the opportunity to succeed is not only the right thing to do but can also transform societies and economies," Lagarde and Solberg wrote in an op-ed ahead of the meeting, which begins in the Swiss ski resort of Davos on Tuesday.

The catch is that women still don’t get anything like the same opportunity to succeed as men - a fact evidenced by the WEF's 2017 Global Gender Gap report, which showed the divide between the sexes had widened for the first time since 2006.

"This year we found something concerning, which is that the gender gap is not only not progressing very fast - it's actually going backwards," report co-author Vesselina Ratcheva, data lead for the WEF's "education, gender and work” programme, told a discussion before Davos, hosted by resilience platform Zilient, in which the Thomson Reuters Foundation is a partner.

Ratcheva and her colleagues highlighted in the report how boosting women's economic participation remains a particularly tough challenge, as this indicator deteriorated in 2017 for the second year in a row.


It will now take 217 years to close the economic gender gap, the WEF estimates, compared with 100 years to reach overall parity, which also includes education, healthcare and political representation for women.

"We think this is cause for alarm," Ratcheva said, pointing to the factors preventing women getting ahead in business.

They include the pay gap between men and women - which persists despite the world getting wealthier overall - a drop in the level of women in senior management in the past few years, and lower economic activity among women, who still shoulder the burden of caring for relatives, Ratcheva explained.

These barriers are found in developed and developing countries alike, with the gender difference in wages more pronounced in countries with high pay levels, such as the United States, Britain and Singapore, she added.

"There are many developed economies that are failing highly educated women who are ready for the labour market but are not included," said Ratcheva.

At the global level, the WEF brings together policymakers and business executives to discuss how to tackle these issues, and also convenes national taskforces in countries including Chile, where it has involved more than 100 companies in crafting an action plan.

As Lagarde noted, the topic will also be on the agenda in Davos this week, with heavyweight organisations such as international business advisory firm EY hosting sessions on women's entrepreneurship, among others.


Natasa Nikolic, who leads EY's Entrepreneurial Winning Women programmes in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, noted that while women start ventures at a similar rate to men, "unfortunately not nearly as many of them scale up their businesses".

In the past decade, the EY initiative has identified more than 400 high-potential women entrepreneurs in some 50 countries, and has helped them with advice and financial resources to speed up the growth of their businesses.

Since 2015, the consultancy has also worked on a scheme called "Women. Fast Forward", which aims to accelerate gender parity in the workplace, and an effort known as W20 that works alongside the Group of 20 countries to put gender equality on the agenda of the powerful political grouping.

Priorities differ according to which government is hosting the G20 - and in 2018, with that being Argentina, the W20 will look at gender issues in the rural economy for the first time, said Nikolic.

She acknowledged that thorny issues like the pay gap are not easy to deal with, even for big companies like EY.


She and Ratcheva agreed the starting point should be measuring and understanding the difference in men's and women's pay - and being transparent about it.

"In some organisations, this will create a lot of discomfort, but it's important to use the analytics to depersonalise the matter," Nikolic told the webinar. EY has managed to achieve equal pay in some parts of the world and is hoping to meet that goal across the board "soon", she added.

Gail Klintworth, director of business transformation with the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, urged leaders of both genders to "understand the power you have to begin to create the world that we want".

But when it comes to righting gender wrongs in the economic sphere, "sadly still we don't have a situation where as many male business leaders are living the kind of environment we are talking about, so women leaders are incredibly important to drive this forward", she said.

Klintworth, who previously served as executive director of investment management firm Old Mutual PLC and chief sustainability officer at consumer goods giant Unilever, said women with game-changing economic ideas should seek out allies who are "more in charge of the power dynamics" and work with them to drive things forward.

"It's about the impact you can create," said Klintworth, now a partner at advisory and investment business SYSTEMIQ.


Ratcheva of the WEF also called on women to ask their partners and others in their families and communities to assume their fair share of the - usually unpaid - work in the household such as chores, cooking and caring for children.

A survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that tracked people's daily responsibilities in different countries revealed a strong correlation between women doing a lot of unpaid work at home and a large gender gap in the workplace, as in Japan, she noted.

"We see that women carry a lot of weight - and that feeling of being overwhelmed means that you don't have the space to expand," said Ratcheva.

While the world has set itself an ambitious goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030, the WEF's latest estimate that it will take a century to get there suggests both Davos Woman and Davos Man have a steep mountain to climb.

If you’re interested in finding out more about efforts to close the global gender gap and taking action, here are some additional online resources:

The WEF's web page on Gender Parity

#PressforProgress campaign page for International Women's Day 2018

Behind Every Global Goal: Women Leading the World to 2030 - discussion paper from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission

EY's Women. Fast Forward web page

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