At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, women still only represented about a quarter of participants. But, nevertheless, a gender “tipping point” appeared near as those in positions of power are increasingly implementing building blocks for a gender balance workplace. As with every transition, though, the exact best practices and levers are yet to be defined.
Having previously attended the World Economic Forum on 10 occasions as employee and journalist, I have always been keenly aware of the persistent gender imbalance of the meeting. When I first attended Davos in 2013, women represented about a fifth of attendees. A decade on, that share inched closer to a quarter. It’s agonizingly slow progress for an issue that’s been on the agenda for so long.
Yet something felt distinctly different this year, and that arguably had a lot to do with the kind of executives I followed this week—and their agenda of choice: the chief sustainability officers (CSOs). As I have noted previously, some 60% of CSOs at Davos are women. And that was reflected in the interviews and sessions I attended, where women were the overwhelming majority.
Thanks in part to their presence, companies in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly putting in place what you could call “gender balanced” policies.
One prominent example is the rise of the gender-neutral 16-week parental leave. At Bank of America, one of the companies pioneering the policy, the leave was taken up by women and men in a ratio of 51% to 49%, the financial services provider’s chief human resources officer Sheri Bronstein told me. It has also been adopted at many other finance and tech companies, in recent months and years.
It means that for many junior and mid-career employees, the reality of gender roles at work and at home is rapidly changing. One senior executive told me that back when he had children, he had zero days of paternal leave. That he still developed a close relationship with them was due to a radical choice to organize his life around work, family, and physical exercise—and nothing else, he said.
But if these and other gender-neutral policies have their intended effect, such radical choices will no longer be necessary for parents of any gender in the modern workplace. Thus, the road to more parity—including at higher levels in corporate America—lies wide open. Additionally, the rise of women in the executive suite, including in the CSO role, means more women are bound to make it to CEO, as well.
The kernels of this virtuous cycle are already becoming apparent in Fortune 500 companies. This year, my colleagues noted, represents the first time in history that the percentage of women among the Fortune 500 CEOs cracked the double-digit percentage, at 10.6%. It’s an additional sign of the positive change that is underway at the very top of corporate America.
At Davos, though, I felt that rapid change is more likely to come from places where women make up the majority of participants, or at least a third, than from places where they represent a tenth or a quarter of participants.
The sustainability-oriented sessions I attended, where women were in the majority (including one co-organized by Fortune and IMAGINE), had a noticeably different vibe from more conventional Davos sessions, such as the Fortune CEO dinner, where the share of men among the CEO participants was reflective of the Fortune 500 overall: approximately 90%.
After the CEO dinner, where Chinese travel firm Trip.com’s CEO Jane Sun was the only woman at my table, I received an e-mail from Sun about some of the policies her company was implementing to increase the share of women in positions of leadership. “As the only female CEO of [a] major Internet company in China, I feel tremendous responsibilities to empower female leadership,” she wrote.
As she noticed “more female employees…struggle between having kids versus coming to work…we set a policy that if they decide to have their eggs frozen, the company will pay for the cost,” she wrote. For the Shanghai-based company, it proved to be a successful lever, according to Sun: “More than 40% of the middle management are females, and more than one-third of executives,” she wrote.
While the outcomes of parental leave and frozen eggs policies may be similar in terms of achieving gender parity, though, they do represent two very different models. In the former, men (as fathers) are encouraged to be more like women (as mothers), spending more time at home with their children. In the latter, women (as careerist managers) are encouraged to be more like men.
What the balance between these kinds of gender policies and incentives will be remains to be seen. If and when gender parity will be achieved is another unknown. But the direction of travel at Davos was unmistakable: women are increasingly taking a seat at the table of the corporate world.
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