Cherchez La Femme at Davos
— Elisabeth Kelan is lecturer in the Department of Management at King’s College London. The opinions expressed are her own. —
The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes insightful research on gender in business, the economy and politics. Every year, for instance, the WEF releases a Gender Gap Report that measures how countries are doing in regards to gender equality.
This always stood in sharp contrast to the annual meeting in Davos itself, where spotting a female face in the crowd was easier said than done. It might come as a surprise (then again, it might not), but one of the most influential meetings around the globe has so far taken place with minimal female involvement.
This might be set to change with the announcement that this year’s WEF will impose a gender quota. More specifically, one in five delegates needs to be female.
However, close inspection reveals that this only applies to the 100 so-called ‘strategic partner organisations’ — groups which pay for the right to send five delegates to attend the WEF.
Applying a gender quota is a laudable effort, and there is evidence that it works. The success of quotas on company boards in Norway has led other nations, including Spain and France, to introduce or promise to introduce a similar framework in the future.
In most cases the quota is set at a level higher than one in five (usually around 40 percent), but in the WEF’s defence, the 20 percent mark is in line with targets for female executives that some companies such as Deutsche Telekom have set themselves.
The WEF’s gender quota, however, highlights a more fundamental problem. I recently taught a student cohort about Corporate Social Responsibility, during which we discussed the MBA oath and codes of conduct as ways to regulate behaviour.
Many of my students were quick to criticise the MBA oath, which they saw as symbollically important but lacking in punitive consquences when ignored. The oath, they said, has no teeth.
The gender quota at Davos, it could be said, is similarly toothless. Norway’s success in raising the percentage of women on publicly listed boards was partly due to the fact that failure to comply could mean being delisted from the stock market — a reprimand that the WEF obviously can not replicate.
It is also worth pointing out that many female execs hate the idea of being part of a quota and would prefer to be judged on merit alone. Others argue that without a strong symobolic commitment, nothing will change in regards to gender equality in the workplace.
But all of these arguments neglect a more fundamental concern. Why, after years of gender diversity measures, are women still not reaching the top? The problems lie in leadership development and, while introducing quotas might remedy a symptom of this problem, it will not deal with the root causes.
When you consider that female delegates made up 15-17 percent of WEF attendees in previous years, a 20 percent target no longers seems particularly ambitious. Much more promising is the aim to achieve gender parity among young global leaders within the next five years.