Wed, Feb 04, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Where are women in this crisis?

The single biggest force for economic growth on the planet is being ignored, as shown by the dearth of female delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos

By Ruth Sunderland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

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 German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Valerie Jarrett, who came as US President 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 organizers 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 behavior. 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.

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