Davos 2018: The World Economic Forum Tries to Meet the #MeToo Moment

January 22, 2018, 12:00 PM UTC

The late political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Man” in 2004 as a label for the type of person who goes to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss ski town, which starts Monday. Participants of the conference, called “Davos” for short, “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations,” he wrote.

Beyond that biting characterization, the “Davos Man” has come to describe the meeting attendees at a more basic level: they’re mostly men.

Critics have long blasted WEF, a Switzerland-based non-profit, for just how male-dominated its annual meeting is. Indeed, female representation at the gathering of business executives and world leaders has hovered in the teens in recent years, inching up to surpass the 20% threshold only last year.

But the “women at Davos” story takes on new urgency this year, as the #MeToo movement grips the business world, raising pressing questions about the treatment of women in the workplace and their share of corporate power.

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Can the World Economic Forum, maligned for years as an elite boys’ club, meet the #MeToo moment? Early signs indicate that—at the very least—it’s giving it a valid try.

In its most obvious nod to the on-going conversation, WEF in November announced the co-chairs for the annual meeting—seven women and no men:

  • Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Belgium
  • Fabiola Gianotti, Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, Switzerland
  • Isabelle Kocher, Chief Executive Officer, ENGIE, France
  • Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Washington, D.C.
  • Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, IBM, USA
  • Chetna Sinha, Founder and Chair, Mann Deshi Foundation, India
  • Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway

In its press release announcing the co-chairs, WEF didn’t call attention to the all-female line-up. Rather, it announced them matter-of-factly, stating: “The Co-Chairs represent both the public and private sectors, international organizations, organized labour, academia and science as well as civil society and social entrepreneurship. They will lend a strong voice to all parts of society, ensuring a multi-stakeholder approach to the program and eventually the impact of the Annual Meeting 2018.”

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WEF later confirmed to Fortune that this is the first time only women have served as the meeting’s co-chairs.

At the five-day meeting itself, there are at least two panels that tackle #MeToo issues head-on—titled, “How Do We Stop Sexual Harassment?”and “Gender, Power, and Stemming Sexual Harassment.” (For context, there are about 150 events—panels, speeches, press conferences and Q&A sessions—on the WEF schedule for the week.) Beyond the official WEF program, there are several privately-sponsored breakfasts geared toward women’s equality and advancement, and The Equality Lounge, an events space that hosts panel discussions and interviews, will be on site again this week.

Davos regulars give WEF credit for putting female speakers and the topic of women’s empowerment more front and center in recent years.

“They’ve brought more women’s topics into the conference,” says Barri Rafferty, president and CEO of public relations firm Ketchum, who cited Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appearance on a pay parity panel in 2016 as an example of the matter’s increased visibility. By comparison, “there was one women’s panel in a small room” several years ago, she said.

After Rafferty attended the annual meeting in 2014 as CEO of Ketchum’s North American operations, she wrote a blog post about how she was frequently mistaken for a male delegate’s wife at the meeting.

“Are you a spouse?” she wrote, “Yes, I was asked that question more than once during the World Economic Forum in Davos. In fact, the number of female spouses attending the event makes the 15% number of official female attendees seem much larger than it is.”

Rafferty says that after her blog post, she—along with several other women—provided WEF with feedback, which resulted in a small, but noticeable change: “spouse” badges were designed to look different from the regular “delegate” badge in an effort to avoid spouse-CEO mix-ups.

Even before then, WEF had instituted its own gender quota of sorts in 2011, requiring that among “strategic partner” firms—like Goldman Sachs, Google, and Nestle this year—every fifth executive in attendance must be a woman.

WEF didn’t reply to Fortune‘s requests for comment on these initiatives and any other efforts to address the #MeToo movement.

“What I would say is that [WEF is] receptive to trying to help women feel comfortable there,” Rafferty says.

Pat Milligan, global leader of multinational client services at Mercer and head of its “When Women Thrive” initiative, pointed to this year’s all-female co-chairs evidence of a shift.

“What has really changed is women’s voices are stronger and much louder,” she said.

Women’s role at the annual meeting—as part of the program and among its participants—matters a great deal since the gathering is an unparalleled networking opportunity, bringing together nearly 2,000 leaders from the private and public sectors, and a platform for discussing some of the world’s most pressing issues.

But for all the progress Milligan has noticed in the meeting’s tone, “the pure numbers don’t reflect that,” she says.

Indeed, WEF says this year’s female representation among participants is “over 21%.” It says that the share is “a higher proportion than at any previous meeting,” though it seems to be a rather incremental increase over last year, when women accounted for 21% of participants.

Rafferty says she looks at the event as a barometer of how women are doing in leadership roles overall, and she sees the mild uptick from last year as indicative of women’s advancement.

“We’re stalled in the real world in general,” she says. “The number of CEOs is not going up like we had hoped and pay equity has taken a step back.”

Milligan puts it more bluntly: “Let’s not get lost; the underlying data is horrific.”

WEF’s own research, published in November, found that it will take 217 years to close the global economic gender gap because the divide between men and women—which takes into account women’s labor force participation, wage equality, and professional leadership—continues to widen.

So while the conversation around the issue of women’s professional success and #MeToo may be more prominent this year, Rafferty says, actual progress “is still very slow.”

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