As a top executive in the financial industry, Theresa Whitmarsh is accustomed to being the only woman in the room. That was the case the last two years when she attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a conclave for the world’s most powerful leaders and tycoons.
Of the 2,500 participants at the annual meeting, which officially begins on Wednesday, just 17.8 percent are women, according to the forum. While that is a slight improvement over previous years, it still reflects the reality of geopolitical and economic power today: Men are almost always the ones at the top.And Ms. Whitmarsh may well be in a similar situation again this year. Women are severely underrepresented at Davos, an elite shoptalk gathering that has been played up as the best networking event of the year, where heads of state, central bankers, chief executives and billionaire investors meet to talk about foreign and economic policy, among many other things.
But this year, more than any other, forum leaders will take the problem of gender inequality head-on, joined by industry groups and the United Nations. Two of the women leading the initiatives are Ms. Whitmarsh, who as head of the Washington State Investment Board runs one of the biggest state pension funds in the United States; and Elizabeth Nyamayaro, who heads the U.N. Women’s HeForShe campaign at the United Nations.
Ms. Whitmarsh and Ms. Nyamayaro will take different approaches as they each release reports on the reasons for, and some solutions to, the dearth of women at the top of the financial world. As part of Ms. Nyamayaro’s report, 10 companies have agreed to release sensitive employment statistics based on gender — something most firms have been loath to do.
Gender inequality will be a frequent topic of discussion, sometimes even among men, in many of the panel sessions. Politicians and executives will debate how future skill requirements will affect gender equality, ask whether women should take more leadership roles in science and technology and determine what can be done to end gender biases.
Like other talking points at the forum, where many participants get more excited about the satellite parties that take place in the Alpine resort in the evenings than the high-minded panel sessions, gender equality can sound a lot like another box to tick, something that companies need to work on in the name of progress.
Yet there are signs that a real desire for change just might be in the rarefied air at Davos. If so, at least some of the shift in sentiment could be traced to conversations in closed-door sessions like one that took place two years ago among private equity executives.
The off-the-cuff remark led to a series of meetings within the private equity industry. Ms. Whitmarsh’s approach has been softer than what some have referred to as a “name and shame” strategy. She has sought to make the case that placing more women in decision-making positions will lead to better performance and financial returns.The discussion turned to talent and the shortage of it. “I made a tongue-in-cheek comment,” Ms. Whitmarsh recalled. How can you expect to find talent, she rhetorically asked the room full of men, when the private equity industry excludes 50 percent of the population.
“I think the business case has become more substantive,” Ms. Whitmarsh said.
Investments are expected to be diversified, so why is that logic not applied to gender, Ms. Whitmarsh asks in the paper she will release at Davos. Men and women have biological and cognitive differences that mean they approach decisions differently, she posits.
Ms. Nyamayaro is trying a different tack. An aim of the HeForShe movement she heads is to get men to champion and voice their concerns for gender equality. When she began her job at U.N. Women several years ago, Ms. Nyamayaro said, she quickly learned that because men hold most positions of power in business and politics, she needed to find a way to get them engaged in the subject.
More important, Ms. Nyamayaro said, she realized that because of all this talk of change, there was no measurement that could serve as a reference point. In the corporate world, for example, companies have historically been reluctant to disclose details of the gender and racial makeup of their employees.
“When we talk about progress, we have to know what it is we’re measuring,” she said. This week, HeForShe will publish for the first time a report of the gender makeup of 10 global companies, including AccorHotels, Barclays, Twitter, McKinsey & Company, Schneider Electric and Unilever.
The 10 companies will disclose the percentage of women in the top 6 percent of executives, the board of directors and new workers. They have also agreed to engage with their employees on the subject, asking them to come up with solutions internally to increase the ratio of female to male employees. In one encouraging sign, more than half of new members to Barclays’ WIN organization — begun as the Women’s Initiative Network but recently broadened to encourage wider participation — were men in 2015, according to HeForShe.
As part of the campaign, HeForShe is also working directly with the chairmen and chairwomen, chief executives or chief operating officers of each participating company, encouraging them to set goals for gender parity. Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, pledged to reach parity in management by 2020. AccorHotels plans to reach pay parity for its 180,000 employees by 2020, Ms. Nyamayaro says.
The social media company Twitter was criticized last year for its lack of gender and racial diversity in its work force. Since then, it has pledged to raise the percentage of women to 35 percent of its global work force and to 25 percent of its leadership roles.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the civil rights leader, has drawn a lot of attention to Twitter and other Silicon Valley companies by attending shareholder meetings and expressing his view that these companies are not inclusive enough.
“These companies can’t say that they can’t find women,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview. “There is no job women cannot do. This is not a talent deficit, it’s an opportunity deficit and a matter of cultural insensitivity.”
Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, has tried to counter the perception that it has a poor track record for diversity. In December, it hired Jeffrey Siminoff, vice president for diversity and inclusion, who was previously the head of diversity at Apple, another company that has lagged in gender equality.
Mr. Siminoff and Adam Bain, the chief operating officer and the HeForShe-designated representative at Twitter, declined to comment. But a spokeswoman said Twitter was “committed to making substantive progress in making Twitter more diverse and inclusive.”
There is a sense that palpable change is afoot, some of which could be driven by those — yes, male-dominated — conversations at Davos. And more women are represented at the World Economic Forum than in the most senior levels of government and business, according to Saadia Zahidi, who heads gender and employment initiatives for the forum.
“It’s a rosier picture than what actually exists at the top,” Ms. Zahidi said. The World Economic Forum hosts Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers, two groups with a combined 150 members under the age of 40, who together are made up of nearly 50 percent women. This has helped to lift the overall number at the forum, she added.
The World Economic Forum is also trying to change the makeup of conference attendees through its corporate partnerships with about 100 companies.
These strategic partners have agreed to include at least one employee in five of the other gender at Davos. If they cannot find one, that company must restrict its participation to four people, Ms. Zahidi says.
The percentage of women represented in this group has doubled to 20 percent since the World Economic Forum changed the rule, she added.