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Behind the Smoke at Davos

I don’t think we can afford to be complacent about what it means for an organization like the World Economic Forum to put its weight behind women’s economic empowerment. If nothing else, its annual report on the Global Gender Gap is a key resource for analyzing gender inequality across many dimensions not covered by, for instance, UNDP.

However, I can’t help but be a little uncomfortable with the disconnect between the flash and trash around women’s economic power last week at Davos and the information we have (much of it provided by the World Economic Forum) that shows how poorly the corporate world performs on gender issues within its own domain.

The news reports last week were all about the power of women as consumers and the importance of harnessing their productivity for national economic growth.  Neither of these are particularly controversial from a corporate perspective:  everybody wants to sell more stuff and you can wave the flag for employing women at the national level without doing anything yourself.

We did get a little critical coverage of how few women there were at Davos (again), followed by yet more showmanship about the Girl Effect and other corporate programmes to support girls in developing countries.  Not that I don’t think these campaigns are important.  I do.  But I am mindful that these are fairly minor efforts in comparison to how these companies treat the thousands and thousands of women who work for them.  All this fluffy talk covers that reality.

Which seems to be the strategy.  Two years ago, the WEF produced the Corporate Gender Gap Report, a disturbing tome that showed how women consistently fall away as any cohort rises through the corporate ranks.  In that report, 72% of the top 100 employers in 30 countries said they don’t track pay by gender because there is no need.  Yet the WEF’s own regular gender report consistently shows that companies estimate paying women about 65% of what a man earns for similar work.  This was true even in countries where “equal pay for equal work” is the law.

The recently-released OECD data showed not only a significant unexplained variance between what women and men are paid, but demonstrated that this gap actually widens at the top earning levels.  So, even if a woman manages to slog her way through all the obstacles and makes it to the top of a corporation, she is still paid less.

There are very few countries left in the world where it is legal to pay women less than men for the same work.  Certainly it is against the law in the countries where most major multinationals are headquartered.  Yet the Davos contingent was calling for corporations to lobby governments to get on the bandwagon about women’s economic empowerment. As far as I can tell, most governments are already there, at least in theory, but businesses are secretly engaging in what appears to be massive pay discrimination, even where it is against the law.  This is not to mention the constant resistance to allow women into the boardroom, on the entirely implausible and self-serving argument that there aren’t enough qualified candidates (maybe if corporates were more supportive of women, there would be more candidates).

And this leads me to another point of discomfort.  I think it is a great thing that we can now make the case for empowering women on the basis of economic prosperity, better corporate governance, and so on.  I think most of know we should be willing to make these changes on a social justice basis.  But we also  know many just don’t care about social justice for women, so we need new arguments that will work.

But I have to say it really bugs me that we keep getting asked to make the “business case” for women in the workforce, for paying them equally and treating them fairly as compared to men.  Equal treatment in the workplace has been the law in most of the Western world for nearly fifty years.  I think it shows incredible cheek to be blowing so much smoke about equality and economics at the national level, while secretly engaging in a level of discrimination  big enough to be measurable in the aggregate.

When corporations are themselves obeying existing regulations and can show that they are treating their own female employees fairly, then it will perhaps be appropriate for them to call on governments for more supportive policies.  Until then, we all need to be a little more skeptical.

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