Waiting for Davos Woman

Why culture is not a virtue.


Contrary to popular belief, Davos is not the mountaintop nest in which elites hammer out secret plans to govern the world. Pretty much everything done during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in this little Swiss village is done for the media — who seem to considerably outnumber the really big-time plutocrats and world leaders here. Even a cursory glance at the headlines from any daily newspaper suggests either that the world is ungovernable or that those governing it aren’t really doing all that much planning.

That said, Davos is the undisputed epicenter of the little known but rapidly growing global force that might be called the Conscience Industrial Complex. Here and at other big events that support the complex (like the Clinton Global Initiative), big money convenes to celebrate its generosity and to seek credit for it. The result — and what Davos actually does provide — is a safe environment in which the well-intentioned and high-minded can hobnob over schnapps and a canapés with the hypocritical and self-interested.

And despite the heavy-handedness in the ubiquitous placards and backdrops declaring the World Economic Forum’s stated mission to improve the state of the world, every so often something remarkable happens — something really good gets done. Indeed, for every self-congratulatory piety offered up by a CEO reading talking points drawn up by her or his underfunded director of corporate social responsibility, there is a project that genuinely makes a difference by righting a wrong or reaching out to the needy.

On Jan. 23, I attended a lunch for one such effort, underwritten by Goldman Sachs, called the 10,000 Women initiative. The goal, articulated six years ago and vigorously pursued since, is to help 10,000 entrepreneurial women worldwide with "a business and management education, access to mentors and networks and links to capital." The results of the program have been impressive. Half the graduates, hailing from 42 countries, have seen their revenues double in an 18-month period. During the same period, graduates reported that their number of employees had grown from six to 10.

At the lunch, leaders from business, NGOs, and government spoke on the impact that empowering these women economically has had in terms of stimulating growth in the developing world and lifting — both them and their neighbors — out of poverty. There was even a candid discussion about the fact that women are still very much underrepresented at the World Economic Forum, with only 16 percent of credentialed attendees being women. The organizers can do better and openly acknowledged it. (They control the invitation mechanism to this event; one hopes they will in the future more aggressively use that power to remedy the imbalance. Introducing new women to the elites who attend this event would surely provide them with many of the benefits offered by programs such as the one sponsored by Goldman. And it’s a two-way street. Studies from the World Bank, the OECD, and the World Economic Forum suggest that the Davos Man, fat cat that he is, would likely enjoy a considerably more prosperous world in which to work if educating and economically empowering women were a higher priority.)

One of the impediments to the advancement of such worthy efforts was hinted at though not directly confronted during this luncheon discussion. One of the speakers noted the sort of risks faced by activists such as Malala Yousafzai and the many others seeking to enable Pakistani girls to attend school. Their courage, putting their lives on the line, was hailed. But the deeper question of why their lives were on the line was not addressed.

It resonated with two news articles I read earlier this week. One was an Associated Press article by a writer named Asif Shahzad. It began, "In Pakistan, a country where breast cancer kills more women than terrorist attacks, an awareness group couldn’t even say the word ‘breast’ while talking at a university about mammograms and how to check for lumps."

"They had to use the euphemism ‘cancer of women,’" the article went on, "to discuss a disease often shrouded in social stigma in this majority Muslim nation." Nearly seven in 10 Pakistani women did not know of the disease as a result. Almost nine in 10 did not know about breast self-examination. And a suggested consequence is that Pakistani women die at almost twice the rate of American women of this illness.

The other story, in which the stakes were very different, was about what it was like to be a female journalist in the United States. It was an op-ed by Amy Wallace in the New York Times. It spoke of how innuendo and Photoshopped photos slurred women reporters in ways their male colleagues did not encounter. It also in turn referenced another very worthwhile read, an article by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic on why women are not welcome in the misogynistic, male-dominated, and generally nasty world of the Internet.

Both stories cut to the damage done daily by culture to women — clearly done at very different levels but, at the same time, done in similarly insidious ways.

In reading both stories I was angered. But I was also discomfited. Because as I read them I felt a flash of the kind of humiliation that can only be born of forced self-awareness. I view myself as a feminist, the son of a woman who worked when it was not widely done, the father of two daughters, someone who bent over backward to help ensure each of my two wives could pursue their careers. I write about these issues and try to carry out my beliefs in every aspect of my work life.

But in reading the articles I also realized that sometimes I will write things, often in the service of weak attempts at humor, that belie all these efforts of mine and contribute to the kind of culture to which Wallace and Friedersdorf had referred. It might be a crack in an article or a tweet about the shenanigans or apparent values of the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan, conceived to amuse or to make some dull bit of foreign-policy commentary seem a little more relevant and accessible.

But reading these articles and discussing this with a few good friends drove home a message. The little unconscious things we do or say — the things that culture whispers in our ears or imprints deep down in the reflexive parts of our brain — matter. Jokes don’t get made about the values of men in these matters. And whatever one thinks of the Kardashians, by calling them out one contributes to an overall culture that makes it OK to shame women but almost never does likewise for men — which in turn contributes to the kind of environment that Wallace rightly complained about.

It may seem a great jump from a hostile environment for women, especially empowered First World journalists and reality stars on the Web, to social taboos that literally are killing women in places like Pakistan (and these problems exist the world over). But you see, that’s the thing that struck me clearly, if belatedly. It is not. Cultural views are insidious things, with the innocent often impacting and interacting with the more sinister all the time. One joke on Twitter is not a big thing. Lots of these kinds of comments on an ongoing basis contribute to a society in which women are judged by different standards than men, and judging them by different standards socially leads to them being treated in different ways in every aspect of their lives.

Personally, I can’t rail as I have against the systematic oppression of women being civilization’s worst wrong or go after taboos that are death sentences for women like Saudi Arabia’s denial of driver’s licenses or even harp on the underrepresentation of women in corporate suites or government offices (even here at Davos), without being more sensitive than I have been to the little unconscious ways I may contribute to the flaws in the fabric of our societies.

But at a much higher and more important level, the relationship between these articles and the exchanges I have had here at Davos goes deeper. For those here and around the world who would be politically correct, there is a conundrum: While seeking to empower women is fine, calling out the cultures that are killing them and holding them back is very nearly taboo.

Culture, however, is not a virtue. Over time, like patriotism and religion, it has become one of those nouns that is infused with more than its share of implicit adjectives — all good ones. Culture is who we are. Culture is to be celebrated. So too is cultural diversity. But not all elements of culture are created equally. And many aspects of culture — from religious intolerance to ethnic division to the celebration of conflict to the denial of education or health care or equal opportunities to women — are not only not to be celebrated, but they are malign.

We must have the courage not only to constantly reassess how culture has shaped us over our lives and work to resist or redress those forces that undercut our values — we must also be willing to say that any dimension of a society that, for example, denies the majority population the rights to which they are entitled as human beings isn’t just a difference to be acknowledged or respected. It is wrong. It is a force for evil. It must be called out no matter what howls of protest may be produced by the self-appointed keepers of our culture.

So, quips aside about how the rich come to Davos to publicly decry the fate of the poor, the conversations here can lead to change — both on the ground for the women and men who need it and in the minds of those who come and listen and reflect.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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