Closing The Gap

At Davos, top execs discuss the #MeToo movement and women at work

(L-R) Christine Lagarde IMF Director, Erna Solberg Prime Minister of Norway, Ginni Rometty President and CEO of IBM, Chetna Sinha social activist, Fabiola Gianotti Director of CERN, Sharan Burrow General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Isabelle Kocher CEO of Engie are pictured during the session "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World" during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018.
Denis Balibouse | Reuters
(L-R) Christine Lagarde IMF Director, Erna Solberg Prime Minister of Norway, Ginni Rometty President and CEO of IBM, Chetna Sinha social activist, Fabiola Gianotti Director of CERN, Sharan Burrow General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Isabelle Kocher CEO of Engie are pictured during the session "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World" during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018.

Women's equality is a hot topic this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where global business and government leaders gather annually to discuss pressing social and economic issues.

Dozens of panels and events have been held on gender, diversity and inclusion, and two specifically focused on sexual harassment.

On the main drag outside the conference hall, you'll find The Equality Lounge from women's advocacy group the Female Quotient. The windows are emblazoned with slogans like "Gender equality is a social and economic issue" and "Diversity is good for business." There's also an interactive exhibit called "Women at Work: Myth vs. Reality" by consumer goods company Procter & Gamble.

This year's gathering is also the first to be chaired by all women, including IMF chief Christine Lagarde and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, and features the biggest ever percentage of female attendees, though they are still in the minority at 20 percent.

Meanwhile, world leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke on women's advancement around the world, putting it at the center of their agendas.

As these leaders grapple with recent stunning revelations from the #MeToo movement and persistent pay and leadership gaps, there seems clear consensus that something needs to be done. The question is: Where do we go from here? How can businesses and governments address deeply ingrained bias and institutional barriers to women's success and equality at work?

CNBC Make It caught up with several top executives at major corporations to find out what they're thinking about these issues and where real change might come from.

"Being a husband and a father of six daughters, with a mother, two grandmothers and three sisters, I think it's spectacular what's happening with the #MeToo movement," says Christopher Nassetta, CEO of Hilton. "What we need to do in government and in business, and in every aspect of our lives, is to continue to make sure that we create an open environment for this to be discussed and that we continue to shine the bright lights on these issues wherever they still exist."

Nassetta says companies should lead by example, and that boards and senior leaders should set the tone that sexual harassment in the workplace "is unacceptable behavior and, when they find the behavior, root it out and deal with it immediately on a zero-tolerance basis."

"I think it's spectacular what's happening with the #MeToo movement." -Christopher Nassetta, CEO of Hilton

When it comes to issues of pay inequality and advancing women up the ladder, he says: "There's no silver bullet. It's hard."

In industries where there's no pipeline for women to advance into senior leadership positions, "we have to build it," he says, by actively recruiting, training and developing women.

One strategy that's worked for Hilton, Nassetta says, is setting three-year goals against increasing all types of diversity and tying executive compensation, including his own, to achieving those goals.

"In business, you have metrics, you measure against them, you compensate people for them, and you'd be amazed at what happens," he says. "I'd like to believe that you wouldn't have to do that, and hopefully when we wake up in 10, 20 years we won't have to do that, but in the meantime you do. We do it."

Beatriz Perez, chief public affairs, communications and sustainability officer at Coca-Cola, notes that this conversation is getting a lot of coverage today but that the movement started years ago. "There are so many women who fought hard fights that have cleared the pathway for people like me," she says.

It's now time for companies to catch up, says Perez, by investigating what's happening within their own employee base and closing the pay gap. She also emphasizes the importance of thoughtful hiring, making sure that candidate pools as well as interview panels are diverse to reduce unconscious bias.

Salesforce has been a leader in this space. For the past two years, the company has annually analyzed the salaries of its almost 30,000 employees and spent nearly $6 million in an attempt to eliminate statistically significant differences in pay. It has also beefed up its parental leave policy and increased access to its high-potential leadership program, which in 2015 resulted in a 33 percent increase in the number of women who were promoted, according to the company.

Salesforce President, Vice Chairman and COO Keith Block says: "For me personally and for our company, equality is a core value. Period. That to me is table stakes for being a good human being and being a good organization."

IMF Director Christine Lagarde reacts after kicking a football with the UN sustainability goals given her by the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg (far right), while General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow, social activist Chetna Sinha and Director of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti are watching, during their meeting at the he World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018.
Heiko Junge | Scanpix | Reuters
IMF Director Christine Lagarde reacts after kicking a football with the UN sustainability goals given her by the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg (far right), while General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow, social activist Chetna Sinha and Director of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti are watching, during their meeting at the he World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018.

"That anybody wouldn't be paid the same wage for the same job is just ridiculous," Block continues, saying "it's outrageous" that the WEF estimates that gender parity globally may be 170 years away.

"It should not take us 100 years. This should just be the way that life is," says Block. "It starts with the culture, a set of values and a mindset."

Hikmet Ersek, CEO of Western Union, says companies play an important role in this social revolution since they are a reflection of society. He also notes that there are 7 billion people on the planet, and in some developing countries women still don't have basic human rights.

"It will take time," Ersek says. "We can't do it with a hammer. It's really an evolution. We as corporations have to set examples because we do have the resources, but it's really a cultural change that has to happen globally."

Echoing that point, Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College, says that change must come from the business community but also from across all sectors, including families.

"Let's not forget that women grow up as little girls in a particular framework," says Flanagan. "Do they get the No. 1 gaming console in the home? Do they get the newest cell phone?"

"The inequities start early, and they're subtle," she says. "We need to really, critically look and also act at each stage of the way."

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