DAVOS, Switzerland — Hanna Aase, the Norwegian-born founder of a Silicon Valley video profile platform called Wonderloop, is dressing differently in Davos this year.
“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” Aase said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot during the World Economic Forum. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”
Davos is the singular gathering place of the global power elite but as the world changes — and grows more focused on women’s rights and roles — the World Economic Forum and the older men who dominate it are struggling to adjust. And for the women in attendance at Davos, who make up just 15% of the more than 2,600 guests, misogyny is as much a part of the experience as politics and economics. It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.
“You see how men sometimes look at women,” said one television reporter from the Middle East. “They say how pretty a woman is, or, what is she doing here? Does she deserve to be here or not? Who pushed her to come in?”
It is not uncommon for men to offer women advice about how to get the most out of Davos in a way that is tinged with implied or overt sexism.
“You have advantages,” said one male guest of the chances a female reporter had of connecting with an important source.
And when one hedge fund manager was told by another he should speak to another female reporter, he replied, “OK, I will, she’s pretty.”
The organizers of the World Economic Forum say that they aren’t to blame: the makeup of the guest list — 85% male, 15% female — broadly reflects how power and wealth are distributed globally. It remains an open question as to whether it also accurately reflects, or rather uniquely sharpens, the attitude towards women in the male-dominated worlds of government and finance.
Another woman, the spouse of a conference delegate, told BuzzFeed, “The vibe is a little like an old boys’ club. There’s a lot of money and booze. It’s kind of like Las Vegas, it’s a spectacle. It sometimes feels like a parody of itself.”
Most women attending the forum are there on an official basis — the conference’s organizers, in a bid to encourage female participation, developed a quota system. They told “strategic partners,” a sub-group that includes some of the world’s biggest companies, that if they included a woman in their four-person delegation, they would get an extra ticket. But that doesn’t necessarily up the proportion of women, Adrian Monck, head of communications for the forum, acknowledged.
“It’s aimed at getting women participating principally,” he said.
Nor is everyone a fan of the system. “There was an implicit thing, like with any quota, a negative effect — ‘Oh, you’re just this token, the token woman,’” said another woman at the forum who asked not to be named.
“They always try to put a question mark and see, ‘How did she manage to come?’” said the Middle East TV reporter of male skepticism about the credentials of the conference’s female guests.
The forum is well aware of the gender discrepancy and does try to address it — Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, spoke on gender this year, for instance. A panel session on “gender-driven growth,” featuring Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde, was filled to capacity.
“We have to move the needle on a global policy level,” said Monck.
Some female guests also see their minority status as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. “Men like to be around women, period. They do, all the time. So in some ways I find it an advantage,” one woman told BuzzFeed.
“Sometimes I think, for women, we have to understand we have tremendous power but it’s not the same as a man’s power and in some ways it’s much more potent,” the guest continued. “The fact of the matter is, as a general rule of thumb, men would rather sit and talk to a woman than talk to a man. You don’t have to be particularly cute or sexual it’s just, if he’s straight, the nature of the beast is, he’d rather have a woman chat him up than some guy.”
Indeed, to some, more striking than the dearth of women was the lack of non-white people.
“Because I’m a black woman, I don’t know that I think about [the dearth of women] so much when I’m in a situation with a lot of men. For me it definitely hit me that I’d probably be one of very few black people,” said Dana White, director of strategic communications at Renault-Nissan. “It did strike me more. The first day, Monday, oh that’s two black people I’ve seen, oh that’s four. I started counting.”
“I think it’s just very indicative of the fact that in the world money and power still rest mainly in the hands of men, white men, despite the fact that they’re the minority in the world and that’s the legacy,” she said.