Report from Davos: “Men still run the world—and it’s not going that well”

Sheryl Sandberg knows what’s up.
Sheryl Sandberg knows what’s up.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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This post has been corrected.

The world’s leaders have descended on Davos, Switzerland, to “make the world a better place.” Among the issues on the to do list: How to close the gender gap.

According to Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, it’s not a moment too soon. “Men still run the world—and it’s not going that well,” she told a packed Congress hall Wednesday (Jan. 20) in snowy Switzerland.

Setting aside the uncomfortable fact that only 18% of the bustling billionaires, politicos, and celebs traipsing through the busy streets of Davos are women, the issue is a very real one for the global economy. According to McKinsey, gender-diverse companies outperform others financially by 15% (while ethnically diverse ones outperform by as much as 35%). Promoting high-potential women earlier, intervening early and often to make sure women are mentored and promoted, and more effectively making the business case for employing more women are crucial.

One thing has been made clear here: There’s not a part of the world where governments and companies can’t do more to make it easier for women to get back to work and stay there. The US, for example, remains the only OECD country in the world that has not introduced any maternity leave legislation at the national level, according to a 2016 report on Trends in Education.

A good start might be on equalizing pay for women. In 2014, women in the US earned 82.5% of men’s salaries, based on median weekly earnings for full-time workers, according to Catalyst. That’s up from 62.1% in 1979, but clearly, more needs to be done.

There are other ways, though, in which governments and employers could intervene. Here are some of the suggestions put forward by the big brains in Davos, as well as a few of our own.

The super-doula

In the Netherlands, the government pays for women to have a kraamverzorger, a sort of super-doula who comes for eight hours a day for eight days after a woman has given birth to help new mothers, according to Olga Mecking. The kraamverzorger helps moms with breast-feeding and parents with everything from how to bathe new infants (harder than it looks) to changing nappies. There’s more: she makes sure mothers are rested and showered, cooks healthy meals, tackles the laundry, tidies the house and assists with other children. Single mothers, mothers who had a tough birth, or those with more children get the kraamverzorger for longer.

Women in the US can hire baby nurses to do the same thing (I did). But it is cripplingly expensive and there is a stigma attached to not knowing how to do it yourself.

Mecking called her kraamverzorger “the guardian angel every new mom needs.” Amen.

Earlier day care

Recovering from having a baby is a sensible first step toward preparing to go back to work. But there’s a slight hitch: what to do with the baby?

In America, options range from relatives and day care centers to informal play groups and nannies.

In France, women can take their babies to a crèche, or high-quality day care center, from about six weeks. Pamela Druckerman, author of Raising Bebe, and a mother of three says the crèche system is a pragmatic way to make it possible for mothers to go back to work. Families pay on a sliding scale based on income and the centers are highly regulated with national standards, unlike in the United States. The food is excellent, and perhaps most importantly, the staff are well-paid and have very low turnover.

“You have a genuine choice here; it’s a viable and affordable option,” Druckerman tells Quartz.

Handing your newborn over six weeks after birth may sound extreme. But for many women it is a necessity (hark back to the lack of maternity leave). Having a safe and affordable option helps those who need it, and those who are fortunate enough to have a choice. This may require a wholesale rethinking of how we fund services for women, but if they helped women return to work and built children’s early learning skills, those would be two very good outcomes.

Longer school days

Kids start formal schooling at about age five in the US. That’s five long years to fill—and manage—for women who go back to work. Preschool of course starts earlier, but the days are often short and the cost very high.

There is a better way.

Kids in France start school at age 2.5. There are three years of preschool and a year of kindergarten, all of which is free, Druckerman says. When kids start real school, they can go early (“garderie”) and stay late, from 4:30pm usually until 6:30pm. At one school in Normandy, the cost for that is €17 ($18.62) month.

There are multiple benefits to this system. Parents can work, get food for dinner or go to the gym. Schools can use the time to divide up the day: classes in the morning, a few hours of sport or other activity, more class and homework in the evening. The government pays for this service, and teachers have to work longer days. But this is a change that could help improve children’s academic outcomes while benefitting families (and structuring the day in a way that is healthier for children).

The irony, notes Druckerman, is that the benefits of this system are not widely touted. “You never hear anyone in France talking about family values. In America you do, but you don’t see policies that support them.”

Workplace flexibility

When women go back to work, they are often balancing not just their work and personal life, but also the needs of an entire family. There are doctor’s appointments, meetings at schools, play dates to organize, activities to research and manage, etc. Men can and do help. But a lot falls to the moms.

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard professor who studies gender issues including pay, notes in a recent paper (pdf) that the pay gap is closing, and to cement its end, flexibility is key. This approach, she says, does not rely on government policy or men doing more (though she indicated that that would be nice). It relies on companies seeing the benefit to retaining moms by making work-from-home or less traditional workdays work. Goldin writes:

“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.”

Panelists in Davos agreed on the importance of flexibility, but Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of flexjobs, a job search site that  specializes in flexible jobs, said that no one is tracking how effective those policies are. flexjobs surveyed 350 companies about tracing the return on investment of flexible time arrangements; only 3% did (they did not quantify the results).

Career interventions

One professional services CEO said his company doesn’t have a gender imbalance at the entry level: it’s 50-50. The problem comes as women’s careers advance: only 20% of partners are female. The issue is not a lack of programs: it has mentorship programs, work-life balance programs, and ample flexibility arrangements. “There’s something else going on,” he said.

The issue is managing women as they advance—or stumble—in their careers and intervening more to discuss goals and obstacles and how to overcome them. Many women leave before they get to the first possibility for promotion; better dialogue earlier on would help.

“Unless we are actively managing the pipeline and interfering with the advancement process, we won’t see the advancement we want to see,” he said.

Barbara Byrne, vice chairman at Barclays and a veteran investment banker, also told Quartz that women need more intervention than men, meaning support at critical junctures and even non-critical ones, such as a deal gone wrong or a mismanaged project. People work for respect, recognition, and reward, she said. “They can vary, but in general, I can motivate a man with money and I can motivate a woman with recognition,” she said. That doesn’t mean not paying her; just that she also needs constructive feedback. That requires a lot more awareness and involvement.

Promote talent earlier

One intervention Bloomberg is experimenting with is promoting high-potential talent earlier. Starting in 2015, the global data business unit started a program to tap high-potential men and women in their late 20s and 30s and promote them one year earlier.

“When we looked at younger women in the organization who had senior roles sooner, they had more of an incentive to come back financially, and when they are back, they are more confident to take the flexibilty they need to stay,” Kiersten Salander, deputy chief of staff to the chairman told Quartz.

Salander said it’s still early, but the program seems to be having a positive effect.

Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg, said he’s directed every business unit to try everything they can to make parity real.

“We want people to beg forgiveness and not ask permission,” he told Quartz.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated the wrong country for the super-doula (kraamverzorger)—it is the Netherlands, not Denmark.