Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

Once a year in Davos, the alps of Switzerland, the world’s top business leaders, international political leaders, economists, celebrities, and journalists meet for four days to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world today.

2,500 participants from just under 100 countries come together with a common commitment—to improve the state of the world. Often acting as a neutral platform for political and business leaders to meet, the World Economic Forum also aims to bring together a hopeful liberal order. In past years the forum has focused on key issues of global concern, such as globalisation, capital markets, wealth management, international conflicts, environmental issues, and their possible solutions. This year, however, the role of women in society and the workplace became the priority.

The gender gap is the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes. This year the Global Gender Gap Report, produced by the WEF, found that the gap between men and women across health, education, politics, and economics widened for the first time since records began in 2006.

Weighted by population, in 2017, the average progress on closing the global gender gap stands at 68 per cent—meaning an average gap of 32 per cent remains to be closed worldwide. The report also found that the gap will not be completely closed for another 217 years. It predicted that the political gender gap, despite exhibiting the most progress, will not be closed for 99 years.

This is a gap that we cannot afford to ignore.

After the hopeful theme of 2017, Responsive and Responsible Leadership, the theme for 2018, Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World, was rather sobering. Gender-related issues were brought to the forefront of what was once a place to discuss business and global health, politics and trade issues only. The time devoted to discussing issues of gender equality and the problems such as sexual harassment reflects a changing global mood.

The mood was summed up in Christine Lagarde’s comment “finally a real panel, not a manel”. The IMF’s Managing Director took to Twitter to note that it was the first time that the Forum’s Annual Meeting had featured an all-female panel of co-chairs. The Davos Men are finally beginning to broaden their circle to include more Davos Women as well Issues of gender relations were brought to the forefront by a plethora of speakers.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg asked for action on gender equality, emphasising the crucial role of education and ensuring that girls participate fully in it.

Chetna Sinha, Founder and Chair of the Mann Deshi Foundation, said that she is a voice for the fractured world, and called on financial access for everyone. She announced an alternative investment fund for female entrepreneurs.

Malala Yousafzai spoke about how the education of young men on the subject of women’s rights is a crucial step to ending gender inequality. “When we talk about feminism and women’s rights, we’re actually addressing men,” she said. “In order to be a man you have to recognize that all women and all those around you have equal rights and that you are part of this movement for equality.” The world needs to renegotiate a new social contract and rewrite the rules, said ITUC General-Secretary Sharan Burrow. We built this fractured world, now we need to learn some lessons and rebuild.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau devoted much of his address to the importance of narrowing the gender gap. Not just for moral reasons, but for the wealth of economic benefits that are to be gained as well. “I’m talking about hiring, promoting and retaining more women,” he said, “and not just because it’s the right thing to do, or the nice thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.”

A variety of models and empirical studies have suggested that improving gender parity may result in significant economic benefits.

Citing research from McKinsey, a global management consulting company, Trudeau explained that narrowing the gender gap in Canada could add $150 billion to its economy by 2026. Research from a range of sources tells us that organisations with women on their corporate boards and in key leadership positions perform better than those without. Outside of Canada, closing the economic gender parity could add $1.75 trillion to the United States’ GDP. For China, the GDP boost could be as much as $2.5 trillion.

Trudeau also emphasised that in the wake of the #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Women’s March movements, we need to understand that these do not represent a sporadic deviation from the norm, but rather a fundamental shift in society.

It is easy for the sentiments issued at Davos to sound hollow. Sometimes referred to as “stateless elites,” the Davos men, and few women, have been accused of living within a bell jar of internationally connected, out of touch elite; looking only to shift the burden of solving these key global issues from governments and business to “responsible consumers.”

Since 2011 the World Economic Forum has been addressing its very own gender quota, to introduce at least one woman for every five senior executives that attended. With apparent success, female participation increased significantly from 9 per cent to 15 per cent between 2001 and 2005. In 2016, 18 per cent of the WEF attendees were female, this number increased to 21 per cent in 2017. Yet given the results of the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, it still has a long way to go in improving the gender equality of its own membership, before it can even begin to preach on improving global gender inequality.

The report’s Global Gender Gap Index is a framework designed to capture the magnitude of gender-based disparities and track them over time. It covers 144 major and emerging economies, tracking across four themes – health, education, economy and politics. First compiled in 2006, the report raises awareness of the issue in each country, facilitates exchange between policymakers, and reveals countries that are potential role models.

There is a notable absence of any G20 countries in the top ten for the ranking of countries by their Global Gender Gap Index. Economic growth is not necessarily bringing about gender equality. As the index reports on differences irrespective of overall income levels, some relatively poor countries can perform well on the index. Rwanda and Nicaragua for example, are in the top 10, alongside Nordic countries who consistently perform well, including Iceland, Norway and Finland.

Many prominent global leaders spoke very passionately at Davos about the need for gender equality. The world is being deprived of a huge untapped resource. We know that this gap exists and we have made some progress but there is still a long way to go.

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