From Jan. 21 to 24, the World Economic Forum held its annual conference in the small town of Davos, Switzerland, the name of which began to be synonymous with the conference itself. Davos is a forum for entrepreneurs, investors and politicians to discuss global issues and big solutions – it is inclined towards the free market, and draws members of an influential, elite class from all over the world. The conference has historically had problems with female participation; however, this year had the highest number of women of any conference so far, with about 25 percent female attendees. NBN Opinion discusses what gender equality means in spaces like Davos, and what gender equality should look like on a broader scale.

Graphic by Jayna Kurlender

Shruti Rathnavel (Weinberg ‘23):

The World Economic Forum had their annual conference from Jan. 21 to 24 – a celebration of global entrepreneurship, but also a showcase of the kind of person whom political scientist Samuel Huntington called “Davos Man.” Davos Man likes globalization; capitalism is his happy place; he is what the word “stakeholder” sounds like before you know exactly what it means. Davos Man has influence and spends a weekend every year in Switzerland to think about how he should use it. But now he wears T-shirts and he believes in the power of PowerPoint and the free market to change the world.

Now more than ever, the World Economic Forum is trying to market the “Davos Woman.” The conference has dismally low rates of female participation, and it’s trying to increase representation by shifting the tent peg just far enough to let a hundred more women in. Letting a few women into Davos to rub elbows with the global elite doesn’t advance gender equality any more than Ellen’s friendship with George Bush advances gay rights.

Jayna Kurlender (Medill ‘23):

Most institutions as they exist today favor white, cisgender men, implicitly or explicitly. Explicitly, men of privilege get picked for promotions and raises over women and people of color – even though women are rated “top performers” more frequently than men. Implicitly, policies like paid parental leave and company healthcare inadequately address women’s concerns. However, in the context of corporate organizations and institutions, gender equality exists in a basically useless vacuum. Yes, Davos invited more women to its conference this year. But does that make any difference when the conference as a whole is mostly white and entirely wealthy? If the women at the conference don’t make an effort to address the concerns of all women – poor women, women of color, queer women, disabled women – then it matters very little who is actually on stage.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women make 62 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Latinx women earn 54 cents. Yet the majority of corporations, even those who preach “feminism,” don't care about women who don’t further their agendas. When we focus only on how we can achieve gender equality within institutions that are fundamentally based in silencing the voices of people that don’t agree with them, the result is hollow.

Gender equality in institutions can’t exist in a vacuum, and we need to acknowledge the greater issues within corporate and institutional spaces simultaneously. The majority of corporate institutions – especially long-standing ones – are built by stepping on the back of marginalized communities to get to where they are. If women in positions of power don’t fight against other issues plaguing institutions, like unsafe working conditions or hiring discrimination, then their positions of power are of no consequence.

Graphic by Jayna Kurlender

Jo Scaletty (SOC ‘23):

Gender equality looks like having women and non-binary people on the Board. It looks like an open-door policy regarding raises and promotions and transparency about paychecks. Gender equality is listening to women and non-binary people the first time they speak, and giving credit where it's due. None of these ideas are absurd. While we as a nation have progressed past the notion of women as simply household managers, we need to continue to fight against the systems mentioned previously to ensure that women and non-binary people can take comfort in their work spaces. I believe that gender equality is more than what I've described, but I can't even begin to imagine it because I can't imagine systems that work for the good of everyone, regardless of gender. We need transparency and acknowledgement, but more than that, we need to start with the reforms referenced above: leadership roles, transparency and acknowledgement.

Madison Smith (Medill ‘23):

While gender protections within large institutions are more than necessary for an equitable and progressive society, gender equality cannot be viewed within a corporate vacuum. Davos may be making efforts to increase female participation in its conference, but this focus is over-simplifying the broader issue at hand. Before we can achieve equality within the workplace and other institutional spaces, the societal mindset needs to be shifted towards the general respect and desexualization of women and their choices.

We see this all of the time. Secretaries became hyper-sexualized and seen as “work wives” once women started to dominate the position after World War I. Mothers are often offered much less money at a new job compared to women without children; meanwhile new fathers are often offered raises. Women's bodies are most often seen as commodities or demonized when women gain confidence in themselves; meanwhile, men are often praised for showing off their figures – just look at the responses to Adam Levine’s shirtless display at last year’s Super Bowl compared to the outrage sparked by Shakira and JLo’s performance at this year’s Super Bowl.

Personally, one of the most concerning trends I’ve witnessed throughout my entire childhood is the trivialization of female expression. It’s become trendy for young women to rebel against the idea of femininity – just look at “tomboy” culture that so many young girls buy into. The phenomenon is entirely built on kids believing that to be feminine is to be weak. Even people constantly shitting on VSCO girls derived from a societal distaste for feminine expression –“saving the bees,” scrunchies and eco-friendly behavior was only considered “basic” once young girls started making the aesthetic popular. Large groups of women enjoying an activity eventually gets labelled as “silly” in almost every instance, and it’s these largely encouraged microaggressions that continually create blocks on the road to gender equality.

“Masculine” activities are glorified. “Feminine” activities are trivialized. Capitalism treats womanhood as a detriment. Young girls are perceiving womanhood as something to avoid. Within the corporate world, successful women are often held to standards leagues above their male counterparts – which are only heightened when other marginalized identities are inevitably factored into the equation. In fact, much of what I’ve previously mentioned barely even scrapes the surface of the monstrous inequalities faced by women all over the globe, especially those also marginalized by their race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, religion, and other intersectional identities. It feels as though gender equality exists as a catch 22 – institutional policy is key to creating gender equality, yet this progressive policy is unlikely unless there is a fundamental change in society’s perception of women.

Graphic by Jayna Kurlender

Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writer are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.