Men still run the world – and I’m not sure it’s going that well.
As a takeaway zinger, it was a good attempt by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, particularly when delivered from a Davos stage where rather embarassingly she was the only woman on a six-strong panel.
In the end, what grabbed the mainstream media attention was her comments about using ‘Like’ to stop ISIS using social media as a recruitment tool. Sandberg had cited the example of a German Facebook user who ‘liked’ a Neo-Nazi page and proceeded to flood it with anti-Neo Nazi messaging:
The best antidote to bad speech is good speech. The best antidote to hate is tolerance Amplifying counter-speech to the speech that’s perpetrating hate is, we think, by far the best answer.
The best thing to speak against recruitment by ISIS are the voices of people who were recruited by ISIS, understand what the true experience is, have escaped and have come back to tell the truth.
But leaving the clickbait headlines aside, the main business of the panel session - The Transformation of Tomorrow - was the future of work and society in an age of digital disruption.
Sandberg was in no mood to mince words on the gender power imbalance. She told participants that only 17 countries out of hundreds of countries in the world are run by women:
Almost every country in the world has less than five percent of its top companies run by women, including the United States and every country in Europe. That means we are not using the full talents of the population.
That means when it comes to making the decisions that are impacting our world, women are not at those tables where decisions are made.
We know from studies of peace treaties to the performance of teams that when women are at those tables, performance is better and yet when you look at most of those tables women aren’t there or they’re massively under-represented.
So we need to change that. We need to change that by really believing in leadership in females, which is something that we still don’t culturally accept.
Polling the audience in the room, Sandberg asked how many men there had been told they were too aggressive at work compared to how many women, or whether they had been asked, ‘Should you be working?’. (Sandberg raised her hand in response to her own questions.) She said:
That's the difference. In men, leadership and working is encouraged; in women, it’s not. he great majority of the mothers in the world have to work. Telling women they can’t do both is ridiculous, because they have to.
Sandberg also pointed to statistics from the developing world that indicate that woman are 25% less likely to have access to education and data and connectivity:
We’re giving it overwhelmingly to men, which explains the pattern we’re on and it needs to change.
Away from the gender issue, Sandberg championed the ability in the Fourth Industrial Revolution to connect the world:
Connectivity and data access is too important just to keep it for the rich. There are four billion people in the world who don’t have access. When they do get access, they are more highly educated, they have job opportunities, they have longer, healthier and more productive lives.
A similar message came from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who emphasized the importance of ensuring digital equality:
We all need to strive to create the digital dividend. There is going to be economic surplus that is going to be created because of this Fourth Industrial Revolution. The question is how evenly will it be spread between countries, between people in different economic strata and also in different parts of the economy?
We’ve got to get to a stage in this Fourth Industrial Revolution of moving away from just consuming tech to producing tech. We have to use world-class technology to produce more world-class technology.
The digital revolution has gone from simply white collar productivity and information revolution to a true digital revolution that is changing things like agriculture. The place where the Internet of Things is having perhaps the profound impact is in the oldest of all industries which is agriculture. There is not a crop that is not being sensed so that you can make sure that the resources that allow you to get the most productivity are increasing.
The gross margin that is there in any ‘thing’, from a car to an elevator, is going from just the ‘thing’ to the service that attaches to it. That’s the profound change that’s happening in the Industrial Revolution.
For its part, Microsoft is putting its money where its mouth is to spread digital equality, with its philanthropic arm set to donate a billion dollars worth of cloud services to 70,000 non-profit groups over the next three years.
It’s a bold gesture, albeit one which caused grouses like Fortune to claim it’s a self-serving move to get Microsoft cloud offerings into as many hands as possible.
Well, yes, clearly there are silver linings here for Microsoft, but it’s not as if it’s the first company to profit from philanthropic moves. But there should also be benefits for the wider world if the scheme delivers what Nadella sets out as its ambition:
We want to make sure that this cloud technology is available all over - NGOs, civic organisations and researchers, so that they can access world-class technology. Not just so that they can consume it, but to create their own world-class solutions.
But while all the panelists wanted to emphasize the ‘yes, we can’ nature of digital transformation, Sandberg conceded that the world is at a tipping point between optimism and pessimism about digital disruption:
I think we are at a really important moment right now when it comes to whether we are going to think about the world in terms of hope or in terms of fear. Every technology that has ever been invented has caused great fears. The questions at Davos this year are really how scared should we be or how hopeful should we be? Will AI take over human intelligence? Will virtual reality mean that we never have another in-person conversation? Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution mean that all the jobs are destroyed?
One note of negativity was struck by Anand Mahindra, Chairman of Indian company Mahindra & Mahindra, who recounted a tale of seeing four women sitting down at a table in a New York restaurant:
The moment they sat down they took out their iPhones. We timed them. For 15 minutes, they didn’t say a word to each other. My daughter said, ‘You know what they’re doing? They’re Instagram-ing their friends, saying “Girls Night Out - having a great time!”.'
I thought, this will be recorded. It will go out to multiple phones and all around the world there will be people who think there was a girls night out. But I know there never was a girls night out. It eluded them. The essence of that human interaction is being recorded but it never existed. It’s some kind of ghost world people are talking about. So I was scared.
Addressing Nadella, Mahindra implored:
There has to be empathy. My point is how do we program not artificial intelligence, but artificial empathy? I know that sounds crazy, oxymoronic., but I don’t think it’s any more oxymoronic than artificial intelligence. So I look at Satya and I say, ‘Will you create artificial empathy for us?’.
Sandberg didn't get the same treatment however, as he added:
I am an optimist. We have Facebook. They're bringing people together. They put the picture of the Syrian refugee baby who washed ashore up there and made people empathize.
There is a choice to be made, he concluded, jumping on Star Wars bandwagon as he compared this to choosing which side of the Force you want to tap in to:
Do we want to be Jedis or do we want to be Sith?