Switzerland: Davos 2009 sticks with aggressive male economic gospel to repair the man-made mess
London ~~ Sunday February 1 2009, page 29
This mess was made by men. Now let the women have their say
It's ludicrous that men dominated the debate in Davos. The single biggest force for economic growth is being ignoredBy Ruth Sunderland
There was no shortage of women at the gathering of the global elite in Davos this year. It's just that most of them were either delegates' wives, there to enjoy the skiing at the Swiss mountain resort while their menfolk got on with the serious business of mending the world economy, or upmarket usherettes dressed in smart, air-hostess-style blue uniforms, helping people find their seats.
The heavy-hitting women present? There was a handful, including Angela Merkel, the German leader, and Valerie Jarrett, who came as Barack Obama's representative. Skim the handbook containing the names of the invitees and you had to pass 20 men before coming to the first woman, who just happened to be Princess Inaara, Her Highness the Begum Aga Khan. On the abridged list of about 170 business leaders, I counted five women. As a delegate put it: "Men in well-cut suits still come first at Davos."
Does it matter that women are not getting on to the guest list of the biggest male ego-thon on the planet? After all, most females of sound mind would far rather be anywhere else. But the truth is that it does. It sure does.
The big theme at this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) was "Shaping the Post-Crisis World". The idea that that can be achieved while excluding half the population is breathtaking in its arrogance and shows that the male Davos elite remains mired in its own preening self-regard and complacency. They have wrecked the world economy, but seem oblivious to the idea they may not be the best people to rebuild it. Ignoring the contribution women can make is ridiculous at any time, but how much more so when there is a clear need to reflect on the macho, tooth- and-claw brand of capitalism that caused the crunch in the first place.
It's not just Davos, of course. Scant attention is being paid to the devastating effects the banking crisis will have on women and children or to the ways in which a female contribution to economic policy may help the recovery. Can women help but feel alienated? As the disaster has developed our televisions and radios have broadcast a steady stream of masculine voices, to the extent that it is remarkable to see or hear a woman. Rogues' galleries of senior bankers are universally male, although it has been a woman - the British Bankers' Association's Angela Knight - sent out to defend them.
To be fair, the organisers of Davos have at least acknowledged that more attention needs to be paid to the female dimension. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF, has said it is vital to get more women into senior leadership positions in companies and governments, both to find solutions to the crunch and to prevent future disasters. Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, published a paper putting the case for advancing women in order to promote economic growth, while World Bank Group managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala drew attention to the plight of women in developing countries, who are likely to suffer disproportionately in the downturn.
But so far it is talk and receives far less attention than the boy's own behaviour. Okonjo-Iweala was overshadowed by the Turkish prime minister, who barged out of a panel discussion during a debate about the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Of course, Davos merely reflects the outside world: the dearth of high-powered women at the talk-fest is not down to deliberate sexism, but the fact there are so few of them. Yet it is absurd that the WEF, which for several years has been issuing reports on the Global Gender Gap, should allow such a chasm to continue at its own annual jamboree. Women such as Oxfam director Barbara Stocking, who has been lobbying the WEF for several years to bring in more women, believes its definition of leadership is too narrow and should be broadened to include, say, female community leaders from Africa.
She is right. A rethink of who qualifies as a member of the Davos elite is long overdue. If it doesn't happen, it will become increasingly irrelevant as its biased delegate list will reflect such a narrow set of views that cannot hope to tackle the very real problems facing the planet. There is also a need for more women in global financial institutions. The Bank for International Settlements has no female directors; the IMF has one woman executive and the World Bank has two out of 10 executive directors. It's disgraceful.
It is essential that women play a full role in rebuilding the world's shattered financial systems. That is not an argument I am putting forward solely on notions of fairness and equality, but on pragmatic grounds; it will be much harder to mend the damage if we fail to harness women's economic potential.
Women are the single biggest - and least acknowledged - force for economic growth on the planet. This is not a claim made by rampant feminists, but by the Economist, which suggests that over the past few decades women have contributed more to the expansion of the world economy than either new technology or the emerging markets of China and India. But surprise, surprise: technology and emerging markets have gleaned acres of coverage in the business press; the potential of women, seen as a "soft" issue, has not.
Gordon Brown wants to put the UK back on the path to growth. One way he might do that is to pay more attention to women. There is a proven correlation between equality of the sexes and economic achievement, in both developed and developing economies. So it is an uncomfortable situation for Britain when women in some areas are losing their jobs at twice the rate of men, sometimes as a result of discrimination by employers. The PM needs not only to defend Labour's record on equal rights, but also to protect the economy, which cannot afford to lose talented women.
If the plight of women here is worrying, then spare a thought for those in the developing world. As Okonjo-Iweala points out, families are more likely to pull their daughters out of school than their sons when they need to boost the household income; that can have a knock-on effect down the generations when these under-educated girls become mothers themselves. Adult women in the developing world also risk suffering disproportionately, because they account for up to four out of five workers in export manufacturing, so when their richer sisters in the West stop shopping for cheap clothes, they lose their jobs.
Investing in women in emerging markets pays dividends for the wider community; they reinvest 90% of their incomes in their families and communities, compared with men, who reinvest only 30 to 40%. The flipside of that is that if you deprive a woman of an income, you are not only hurting her, but her children and husband as well.
There is a school of thought that the crisis was the product of overwrought masculinity on trading floors and in bank boardrooms. The mostly male commentary is in a similar vein, couched in language that is dehumanising, aggressive and militaristic.
We can't undo the crisis, but we can change the terms of the analysis so we think and talk about it in a more rounded way; so that we listen to the voices of women; and so that we bring some humanity into economic discourse. The harsh truth is that this clean-up is too important to be left to the men who made the mess.
• Ruth Sunderland is the Observer's business editor