World Economic Forum: Tackling the gender gap in Davos | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 23.01.2019
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World Economic Forum: Tackling the gender gap in Davos

Only one in five participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos is a woman. Female role models are desperately needed to close the gender gap in politics and business.

"I was trying to make a point." When Marin Alsop talks about her performance at Davos, she is visibly proud. The conductor usually leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but at the opening of the World Economic Forum (WEF) she conducted an all-female orchestra – put together explicitly for the event at her request. "It was fascinating. And did you notice there were three women in the bass section?" she recalls excitedly in a conversation with DW.

Alsop has been lobbying for more women in orchestras for many years. Classical music remains a male domain. Alsop was the first female conductor to lead a major US orchestra. She has also been promoting young female conductors for many years through her own program, the "Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship." Gender equality is a matter she cares about deeply. She says it's important that young women have female role models in leadership positions. That is true of music, but naturally of other areas as well.

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Crystal Award for diversity

In Davos, the conductor was honored with the Crystal Award, which is given to artists and cultural figures whose leadership inspires inclusive and sustainable change.

But Alsop also notices that diversity is still a work-in-progress at the meeting of the elites in Davos. The forum is still male-dominated. Currently, only about one-fifth of the participants are women and their number has only increased by one percent since last year. There is still a significant gap between aspiration and reality.

"The issue is a reflection of reality," Alois Zwinggi, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, recently conceded in an interview. And the WEF acknowledges that most leadership positions, be they in business or politics, are still occupied by men.

Angela Merkel speaks at Davos (Reuters/A. Wiegmann)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a forceful plea for international cooperation and compromise in an age of populism during her speech in Davos on Wednesday

Role models are needed

Ann Cairns, Vice-Chairman at Mastercard, a financial services provider with a staff of more than 11,000, is not satisfied with that. "We want to see some visible role models", she says and stresses "gender equality is not a fashion thing."

She is the highest-ranking woman at Mastercard and has been attending the World Economic Forum on and off for many years.

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At Mastercard, they are hard at work, trying to redesign the hiring process to be gender-neutral. "We want to cover the whole diversity spectrum," Cairns emphasizes. "How do we get women, how do we get minorities or the LGBT community?" She says it would be easier to recruit women for future leadership positions if such positions were already visibly occupied by women.

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That is also the strategy at the WEF. "Ninety-five percent of all panels with three or more speakers have male and female participants," says Oliver Cann from the WEF's communications department. That is an improvement because only a few years ago, panel discussions were usually all-male.

"Women's representation at WEF is incredibly important as a signal to the business world," agrees Julie Teigland, Managing Partner at EY Germany, Switzerland and Austria. "However I believe that this is a process and it can't happen overnight. I think that forcing the women's participation at the forum, and the same for business, would not be the right thing to do right now."

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Unofficial ways

Some companies and initiatives take a completely different approach during the World Economic Forum. Outside the broad security zone, they organize their own events that address the issue of gender equality. The Equality Lounge is a cozy lounge, where top speakers talk in front of a predominantly female audience during three days of the WEF. The mood is cheerful, the discussions are serious. "Why Diversity should be a Business Goal," "Women Changing the Trajectory of Trust," or "How we are challenging gender norms." Topics that would have been great on the official WEF schedule.

EY's Julie Teigland looks beyond the mere ratio of women to men: "we are in need of a leadership which is reflective of the diversity of our society. I am optimistic and I think we are on the right track in terms of what is being done to increasingly give women a seat at the table. I am hopeful that in a few years, gender equality is no longer going to be a topic of discussion here at WEF, but just an issue of the past."

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