This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is shaping up to be a characteristic dudefest. With its attendee population of world leaders and corporate bigshots, less than 18 percent of whom are women, this year’s gathering has paused at several points to reflect on gender equity. And yet, since this is Davos, these moments have had an unsurprising focal point: men.
The male CEOs of 10 major global companies released some specifics on their male-dominated workforces on Friday in conjunction with HeForShe, the United Nations' initiative to involve more men in global efforts for gender equality. The corporations, which included Twitter, Unilever, Barclays, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, averaged about 40 percent women in new-hire classes and 27 percent women in senior leadership positions. Some are doing much worse: McKinsey, for one, employs only 11 percent women in its top roles. The group of men posed for photos and promised to do better in the future. Yay!
On Wednesday, consulting firm Mercer held a panel on gender parity in business in advance of its annual report on the subject. The panelists were all men—in fact, the panel’s title was “The Role of Men,” and the intended audience was men. Mercer’s gender-equity initiative is called “When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive”; its website encourages corporate leaders to “capture a portion of this economic opportunity”—that is, women. A video about the program features a male narrator opening with an statement that sounds like he’s observing an exotic species in the wild: “Women,” he murmurs. “They provide one of the biggest opportunities for growth.”
On one hand, it’s true that companies with more women in leadership positions perform better in the marketplace, and since men still hold a disproportionate amount of hiring and decision-making power, it’s smart to appeal to their egos and concerns for the bottom line. Still, it’s disquieting to hear gender equality pegged as a moneymaking strategy, and women’s lives and economic disadvantages reduced to talking points on a man’s PowerPoint. That the UN must place men at the center of its campaign for women’s advancement is a sad reflection on the enduring power of male insecurity when it comes to lawmaking and workplace politics. It risks implying that women can’t do anything by themselves, even earn their own fair treatment.
Recent studies have confirmed that white men feel threatened by the slightest suggestion of a company’s commitment to diversity; at the “Role of Men” panel, a Mercer senior partner pointed out that, since 2014, men’s involvement in diversity and inclusion efforts has fallen from 49 percent to 38 percent. The panel’s hashtag seemed built to boost those fragile egos in danger of crumbling under gender equality: #MenMatter. Yes, allies are a necessary asset in any viable strategy for real change. But when they hog the spotlight, it’s hard to take them seriously.