Women on top — more quotas, please

January 30, 2011

I was in the lobby of the Steigenberg Belvedere waiting for my husband yesterday but there was nowhere to sit. Looking around I saw a Davos Wife  resting on a crowded stairway. I joined her and, of course, we struck up a conversation about Women at Davos. I could tell by her comfy snow boots she had been coming for years.

She explained to me that I had it all wrong. Women are at not the bottom of the ladder at Davos but in fact are the ones who make it work. Here is why: speakers are invited so that they can be on panels but the businessmen come so they can take meetings and do deals.

“The World Economic Forum produces all this content but needs to create an audience for the invited speakers,” she said. “The women who come are equal to their husbands and equal in drive and so they self select.” Since they aren’t given a role in the conference they have nothing to do but go to the panels. That’s why the audiences for the sessions on health, arts, science and, to some extent philanthropy, are largely made up of Davos Wives.  Davos would not function without these women.

I am all for  being allowed to attend panels on “Personalized Medicine”, “Design for the New Reality” “Ensuring Elusive Growth” and “What If Another Bank Fails?”.  But things have come to a pretty pass when a paid up Davos Wife (who is a business executive to boot) actually believes our role is simply to fill the seats. Nor do I do believe for a minute that this is what founder Klaus Schwab and his board have in mind for us.

The people that run the Davos meeting are trying hard to make it more woman friendly and they have many initiatives to prove it. But sometimes they just get it wrong: at the Thursday panel on “Women and Society” chaired by Laura Tyson, the male panelists outnumbered the females by two to one. When she saw it on the agenda, “I thought it was a f—-ing joke! “said one female Davos participant.

I’ve had a lot of responses since to my writings this week and Jessica Mack at the Ms. Magazine blog yesterday called on me to stop writing about hokey subjects like mistresses and to tackle more serious matters.

My good friend Rana Foroohar from Time magazine has written that quotas by themselves don’t work. Businesses should hire women because it is the smart thing to do. Megan Casserly at Forbes.com cautions that marginalizing women by putting them on earnest panels about women’s issues may not help much either.

These points are reasonable, of course. But  the bottom line is the World Economic Forum is hosting  a conference in which only 15-17% of the official attendees are women. As PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said, What’s needed is prompt and decisive action to expand the number of women on panels.

There are many theories as to why there is a shortage of women. The WEF organizers note that worldwide “less than 3% of Fortune Global 500 CEOs are women, a little over 15% of ministerial positions and parliamentary positions are occupied by women and less than 20 of the world’s Presidents or Prime Ministers are women.”

So if WEF sticks to inviting the same old suspects it will never manage to get anywhere near gender parity. The solution is to think creatively about how to add in more women without diluting the hot house elitist atmosphere that Davos goers pay good money to get access to.

In the spirit of constructive criticism (so unlike me, I know) here are some suggestions: The Friday discussion about diplomacy in the digital age which was moderated by the BBC’s Nik Gowing included Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and two diplomats but no women. Since the WEF organizers were including journalists anyway then why not have invited Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington both of whom are at Davos this year?

On Thursday there was a lively discussion on natural resources in Africa which included Tony Blair, Jeff Sachs and Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi. No women on the panel but Oxfam UK CEO Dame Barbara Stocking was in the audience. Given Oxfam’s efforts on the extractives in Africa  she could have been invited on stage. Reaching outside Davos another possible would have been Revenue Watch Institute director Karin Lissakers (disclosure: I am on the RWI advisory board). The clever people who run the World Economic Forum are possibly the finest networkers on the planet so I have no doubt that with a little bit of effort they can transform their events.

And while they are it maybe they could do something about the glass ceiling that reportedly exists inside the organization and add a couple of women to the managing board?

WEF tells us that the new quotas more than doubled the number of female executives in the delegations of the strategic partners — aka the people who fund this thing — this year even though 20% did not comply. In other words, their quotas actually work. So as I jam my suitcase shut for the journey tomorrow, and prepare for some final schmoozing tonight I will hope that I get to come back next year and look forward to seeing even more women here.


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I, for one, am glad you are reporting on this phenomenon. Avoiding it in order “to tackle more serious matters” would be to miss one of the most serious matters of all – witnessing an exercise, on a world stage, in gender disparity. Where else is this revealed, in such magnitude?

It isn’t enough – and it would be a false attempt – if Davos simply expands its panel appeal to women, and Rana and Megan have it absolutely right–this kind of quota-filling misses the point entirely. It would be much better to observe the disparity, take copious notes of the areas that are women-poor, and take the lessons back into one’s communities and countries where one can work on improving the environment for women’s participation in business, science, economics, politics, you-name-it. Then perhaps we’ll achieve a true parity.

Posted by aesgray | Report as abusive

Davos was really irritating me. And this board situation is pitiful. Thanks for your work.

Posted by kshikany | Report as abusive

As someone who is passionate about women issues, I’m happy to see someone’s opinion on this discussion. Thank you for sharing!

Posted by jeanose | Report as abusive