‘Davos for Women’ May Marginalize Female Leaders

Creating a separate sphere of influence does not mean exerting an equal amount of influence

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Masuti / Demotix / Corbis

Malaysian First Lady Rosmah Mansor, center, and Irene Natividad, left, president of the Global Summit of Women, arrive on the first day of the summit in Kuala Lumpur on June 6, 2013

The Global Summit of Women, now wrapping up in Kuala Lumpur, brings together corporate and political leaders from around the world. As such, it is often called the Women’s Davos (although the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, which meets annually in Deauville, France, also competes for that title). These gatherings allow female leaders a privilege that their male counterparts still take for granted — the luxury of knowing, when you step into a conference hall, that your gender will be in the majority. But the bigger question is whether attempting to create separate spheres of power changes anything or if it further serves to marginalize women in leadership.

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There is no doubt that Davos is a boy’s club. In 2013, only 17 % of the delegates were women, a number that has remained static for many decades despite a new policy that requires that companies must send one woman for every four men.

But perhaps success should not just be measured by entry into the World Economic Forum. After all, the Davos definition of power could use a little updating. Yes, many fewer CEOs and heads of state are women, but women wield enormous power in the NGO and activist world. Even the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list measures not just size of the company but impact.

The Global Summit of Women in particular was founded to make women in the corporate world more visible. But like the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), the summit’s chief virtue is that it makes women visible to each other. It can be very empowering, especially for younger women entrepreneurs, to be in an environment where you can see the achievements of women more clearly, even if this can only be accomplished by tuning out the white noise of the male corporate world. But in terms of affecting or bringing about change, it’s been around since 1994, and if it hasn’t yet developed at least some of the clout Davos has, we have to ask what it stands for. Visibility isn’t progress if female leaders remain underrepresented.

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Another, and far more urgent goal for these types of forums might be for them to increase the number of women in business. E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding made a controversial statement last year, when she argued in favor of affirmative action, suggesting a 40% quota for women in boardrooms. Her proposal has been widely debated: her logic is unassailable, but many will resist the idea that the only way to deal with a glass ceiling is to smash it into tiny pieces.

For these summits, the dilemma then is how to use the commitment of their members, and the good will they’ve generated, to put pressure of existing institutions to change. Creating a separate sphere of influence makes sense, but only if it exerts an equal amount of influence. As IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has said, when it comes to advancing women to the highest levels of business and policymaking, “We have to dare the difference and we have to speak about it.” Lagarde made those comments at a World Economic Forum session on women leadership in Davos.