Davos: Women and the Leadership Gap

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Two years ago, the World Economic Forum introduced a gender quota of sorts – to raise the percentage of women at its annual event in Davos, which I called “embarrassingly low.”

In 2010, only 17 percent of attendees were women, so the WEF decided that moving forward, for every four men each company sent to Davos, they’d have to send one woman. This year, after two years of the quota system at the elite gathering, well, not much has changed. The percentage hasn’t risen at all. In 2013, only 17 percent of attendees were women.

What’s going wrong?

According to The Guardian’s Jane Martinson, many companies are sending only four men, and forfeiting their last ticket rather than send a woman. And as Quartz’s David Yanofsky wrote, “Comparing the conference’s gender bias to that of the world population–49.7% women–means that one is 66% less likely to encounter a female participant at Davos than almost anywhere else in the world.”

But in truth, the 17 percent ratio is simply business as usual. As Barnard College President Debora Spar wrote last September:

“As of 2012, women accounted for only 16 percent of partners at the country’s largest law firms and 15 percent of senior executives at Fortune 100 firms. They constituted only 10 percent of the country’s aerospace engineers, 7 percent of its Hollywood directors, and 16 percent of its congressional representatives. And they still earn, on average, only 77 cents to every man’s dollar.”

The Davos gender gap is just a representation of a larger problem – a global leadership gap that leaves fewer women in charge of a world that sorely needs them. After all, if some of the best leaders aren’t making it to the top simply because they are female, that means some sub-par leaders are taking their place simply because they are male.

Apparently, our institutions would willingly withstand underwhelming leadership rather than do the hard thing and look beyond the “think leader, think male” stereotype – and this should call into question every other lazy decision these institutions have implemented.

Elevating the Conversation

This year, the WEF held a plenary panel on gender for the first time, with notable participants like Herminia Ibarra, The Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organizational Behaviour, INSEAD; Christine Lagarde , Managing Director, International Monetary Fund; Drew Gilpin Faust , President, Harvard University; Viviane Reding, Vice-President and Commissioner, Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, European Commission; Lubna S. Olayan, Deputy Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer, Olayan Financing Company, Saudi Arabia; Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board, Facebook; and Kevin Kelly, Chief Executive Officer, Heidrick & Struggles.

Judging by the slew of articles on the panel, Sandberg was the standout participant – and with good reason. During her talk, she called out the gender stereotypes that hold women back, like the fine line that women tread between being assertive and being aggressive, and the disproportionate amount of housework that working women do around the world compared to working men.

I’ve long been a Sandberg skeptic. There’s a fine line between encouraging women to achieve more, and blaming them for not achieving enough, and her discussions often seem to lean toward the latter.

Sandberg’s constant exhortation to women to “lean in” and be more ambitious can be self-affirming for many people. After all, in order to empower women to lead, we need to establish a certain level of self-determination: You can achieve anything if you just put your mind to it! She has written that women often lack self-confidence, and don’t see themselves as leaders, that they choose to make sacrifices for family, even before they have a partner or children or aging parents to care for. All of this is often true. Yet, until now she has ignored the context – the societal and workplace pressures that encourage and sometimes force women make these choices. Without that context, the flip side of Sandberg’s “lean in” mantra is a dangerous blame game: If you aren’t achieving, you must not be trying hard enough.

This is why her discussion at the WEF was a surprise. She began:

“Organizations need to address the institutional barriers we all know about, the overt discrimination, the non-overt discrimination, the lack of flexibility. But I think what the situation really calls for right now, in addition to that, is a much more open dialogue about gender because we are all determined and we are all judged and held back by very gender determined stereotypes and this is a conversation people rarely have – and no one has in companies.”

She continued, “I grew up never talking about being a woman in business until just a few years ago, because I was doing what everyone else was doing. Earning it, fitting in, not sticking out. But I think we are held back by these gender stereotypes. They’re the soft stuff that organizations just don’t talk about.”

She recalled how her General Counsel advised her not to publish her “don’t leave before you leave” article in Fortune due to fears around potential legal ramifications. Fears like that, she said, are leading companies to avoid the gender discussions that need to take place.

Sandberg’s views on the issue of gender equality, as well as her understanding of her ability to influence discussion around it, are clearly evolving. Hopefully the conversation around “lean in” will evolve too.

As Aviva Wittenberg-Cox, in her Harvard Business Review article, recently pointed out, the so-called “ambition gap” discussion provides an excuse for every lazy institution that hasn’t achieved anywhere close to gender balance yet. “Every resistant man on the planet will be able to quote her. Women must simply become more ambitious, more assertive, more… male. Then maybe we can promote them.”

She also points out that at Facebook, Sandberg’s own company, gender balance is not an apparent priority. She is the only woman on both the executive team and the company’s board.

Changing the ratio of women at the top will take significant effort on behalf of all leaders – placing the burden of the leadership gap squarely on the shoulders of women isn’t the right tack. Wittenberg-Cox adds, “All the companies I work for have learned that gender balance is a result of highly proactive management pushing, not a complacent declaration that outsiders can succeed in the existing system by trying harder.”

Hopefully Sandberg will continue to use her influence to move the conversation forward, and encourage institutions to ensure they are placing the best people at the top – regardless of gender.

1 Response

  1. Can you imagine how the world will change when the United States finally elects it’s first woman President. I believe that is the change we need to see in the world. Hillary, are you listening?