One of the main themes at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting this year is gender equality—and the big talk about that happened today.
Walking into the room this morning, you’d have been entirely justified in keeping your expectations low. For starters, panel discussions are notoriously not what’s interesting about this peculiar gathering of nerds and CEOs in the Alpine setting of Davos, Switzerland. The action, as every reporter and most participants know, is in everything that happens on the sidelines: the ideas being thrown around in the hallways, the amazing anecdotes told over lunch, the people you might bump into at the cafeteria.
The odds were especially bad for this panel on “Women in Economic Decision-Making.” The fact that only 17 per cent of Davos attendees this year are women made it look exceedingly irrelevant.
For the first thirty minutes or so, your instincts would have been proven entirely correct.
That is not to say there weren’t good things about the first half-hour. Moderator Herminia Ibarra, a business professor at INSEAD, France, had some striking statistics: women make up 60 per cent of university graduates in Europe, but then, in the Old Continent as well as the U.S., only four to five per cent of them become CEOs. Also, only 14-16 per cent of corporate board members in developed countries are female.
C-suite headhunter Kevin Kelly, the only man on the panel, pointed out that of the 5500-some board seats at Fortune 500 companies only about 300 turn over every year, of which roughly 20 per cent go to women. Even if one were to mandate that 50 per cent of those seats go to female candidates, the gender composition of corporate boards would change at a glacial pace… (Kudos to him for coming up with something original and relevant to say about women quotas—it ain’t easy.)
And then there was Sheryl Sandberg.
“There were t-shirts printed for little boys and little girls,” started out the Facebook COO, whose book on women in the workplace, titled Lean In, comes out in March. “The ones for boys said ‘smart like daddy,’ the ones for girls said ‘pretty like mommy’. ”
“I would love to say that was 1951, but it was last year—in the United States.”
Companies, she argued, never address this kind of unconscious gender stereotyping—why? Because talking about these things at the office has become taboo. The very laws and HR rules that were put in place to prevent discrimination, Sandberg said, are, in some ways, backfiring.
“Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” continued Sandberg, which leads females to become less popular–among both men and women—as they become more powerful.
It’s a cultural truism of workplaces everywhere, and it has very practical consequences for women’s chances to get promoted, she noted.
It leads to phrases like “she’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,” or, “she’s a bit aggressive,” being tossed around casually by managers during performance reviews.
“They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender-specific stereotypes.”
Talking about this unintentional discrimination openly is the only way to make people aware of it and eradicate it, the Facebook executive argued.
Harvard, she said turning to Drew Gilpin Faust, who heads the place and was also on the panel, has managed to close the performance gap between male and female business school students doing precisely that. Addressing the “soft stuff”—no big structural changes needed.
Companies can do much the same, she argued. One step in that direction would be to help women cope with that most dreadful of dreaded questions: “should you be working when you have kids at home?”
How about having employers and managers ask women a different question, suggested Sandberg: have you thought about having a family? Let’s talk about how you’re going to manage through your child-bearing years.
Of course, she joked, nobody in their right mind would dare do so—inquiring about a female employee’s reproductive plans is breaking HR Rule No. 1.
And that, she said, is a problem.
It was Sandberg’s second time speaking about women at Davos, and it was electrifying—and fun.
Even IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who had until then stuck to some talking point about women being naturally “more inclusive,” felt compelled to recall how, back in the days, she struggled with the decision to check out early on Wednesday afternoons as a junior lawyer with young kids.
That’s probably the one thing everyone will remember from Lagarde at this panel when they fly home.