Shared norms, soccer pundits and dealing with the ‘New Reality’

January 26, 2011

— Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of several books, including ‘Who Moved my Job?’ and ‘Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field’. The opinions expressed are his own. —

And so the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos is underway once again. The theme this year is Shared Norms for the New Reality, which according to the WEF is: “…reflecting the fact that we live in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected but also experiencing an erosion of common values and principles.”

I think that means life is moving faster so we need to step back and review some basic principles, because some are struggling to keep up. At least that’s what I understand it to mean.

But, disregarding the headline purpose of the conference, the really interesting story I am noticing as the WEF gets underway is that partners – or sponsors in more direct language – have been asked to bring at least one woman in their delegation. In 2010, just 16% of attendees in Davos were women and the WEF wants to see that figure going up.

But this is a club for presidents and company executives and fewer than 3 percent of the Fortune Global 500 chief executives are women and less than 20 of the world’s presidents or prime ministers are female. It’s no wonder that Davos is overrun with men in unimaginative dark suits sheltering from the cold.

The WEF has been around for forty years now and this is the first time any serious effort has gone into forcing the companies who attend to favour their female employees for a place in the conference delegation. Some might argue that creating female-only quotas for a business conference is the tail wagging the dog, but organisations often need some incentive to change and break free of the sexism all around us in daily life.

This week, Britain has been gripped by the controversial recording of sexist remarks by two football pundits, Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Keys and Gray made disparaging off-air comments on Sky TV about a female match official, questioning her ability to understand the game based solely on her gender and scoffed at remarks by former Birmingham City FC Managing Director, Karren Brady, that the game is sexist.

Nobody can deny that football exists within a male-dominated sporting culture, just as most company boardrooms still operate within a male-dominated business culture, but now Gray has been sacked and Keys is making grovelling apologies and hoping he can survive as a presenter. Sky – and broadcasters in general – clearly feel that their presenters need to set an example to the viewing population. And they are right. Replace the casual sexism of their original comments with racism or homophobia and there would have never been any question about whether they could continue as Premier League commentators, so why the hand wringing over sexism?

Ask the delegates at Davos. Even with the delegate quota, it looks like female attendance this year is still below 20 per cent. Out of the top 100 companies sending a delegation, 20 have chosen to forfeit a place at the event rather than sending a woman. Those female executives who have made the journey to Davos are finding out for themselves what Shared Norms for the New Reality really means.

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