By at least one (pathetic metric), gender equality is improving

Bridging the gap.
Bridging the gap.
Image: World Economic Forum
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If you care about gender equity, there seems ample cause for despair. Women make up 21% of Davos participants this year. According to various panelists at Mercer’s annual “When Women Thrive” breakfast at the World Economic Forum, men still make 80% of decisions in business, and women are 15% less likely to be promoted at every level.

Amidst the gloom, there may be slivers—and really, these are slivers—of hope. Four years ago, 10% of the participants of the breakfast were men. This year: 40%.

The World Economic Forum predicts that it will take 217 years to close the gender gap. According to Mercer, the best predictors of whether women will stay with a company boil down to:

  • There is no substitute for bold leadership.
  • Analytics matter.
  • Men matter.
  • Investors can hold companies accountable.
  • Women have unique health and wealth needs.
  • Companies need a climate that drives change.

Julio Portalatin, president and CEO of Mercer says “It’s all about the numbers.” His numbers? Mercer has achieved pay equality at most levels of the organization and women make up 52% client facing roles.

Leena Nair, CHRO of Unilever said you have to do three things: support women, change the organization to promote flexibility especially during the 10-12 years where caregiving “really overwhelms you”. And work with men, whatever their motive for caring about gender diversity. “For some men it’s because they have daughters, for some it’s money, what ever gets your heart going,” she said. “We need change at all levels. We need men and women and organizations to change.”

Robert Smith, founder and CEO Vista Equity made the case for why ignoring half the population is not a particularly savvy approach. Success, he said, will be defined by “who has the smartest people tackling the most important problems.”

“If you leave out half the population, you are sorely mistaken,” he said adding that the planet has 7.6 billion people and only 19 million can read code (Vista focuses on tech and finance). Two of Vista’s five funds are run by women and 43% of his employees female, he said. He said he makes sure women have the skills to propel their careers forward. “We have them at bat so they have the chance to excel.”

Sheila Marcelo, founder and chairwoman and CEO of said it’s not just policies, but “money talks”. “Women don’t hold up half the sky, they drive the economy,” she said. “Why wait 217 years for $28 trillion?” citing McKinsey’s figure for the economic impact of achieving gender equity.

“There are no short cuts,” said Portalatin. “There’s no easy approach.”