The Guardian, 27 January 2012
Despite a quota system to boost female participitation, the gender imbalance is still heavily skewed towards men
If you attended the opening address by Angela Merkel or the private dinner in which Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee held a group of financiers in thrall with her life story, you might think that fabulous, powerful women dominate Davos. But the fact is, Davos has a woman problem.
The first day, which included honours for the Japanese violinist Midori and a screening of the biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi, may have ended with a party to "honour women innovators" such as the web entrepreneur Arianna Huffington. with guests departing into the snowy darkness of Davos to the rousing sounds of the 1980s disco classic Ladies' Night. And the biggest day of this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) on Friday may include a main room event discussing "women as the way forward".
But while the impact of women this year may be bigger than ever, organisers keen to encourage and then trumpet their success cannot hide the fact that their numbers are still small.
Despite a new quota system demanding that the largest members send one woman for every four men, just 17% of the 2,500 delegates are female. Despite a push to encourage more women on to panels to discuss the issues of the day, just 20% of those invited to do so are women. The majority of panels, especially on key economic topics, are still dominated by (white) men.
Although the days are long gone when one female delegate was asked to leave an event because security assumed she must be a spouse without the required permit, the majority of the women in Davos are not there as participants. Only newcomers to Davos seem to consider this fact remarkable, with the odd feminist exception such as Helen Clark. The former prime minister of New Zealand turned administrator of the United Nations Development Programme called the female participation rate "pathetic". The leader who appointed so many senior women to her cabinet that Benetton ran an airport advertising campaign welcoming visitors to the "women's republic of New Zealand" called for organisers to commit to the millennium development goal of 30% female participation by 2015. "Or why not next year? They should just go and look for the women. In one stroke, participation would go up."
There is little support for such intervention among organisers, who argue that Davos merely reflects a world in which women lead just 3% of the biggest companies in the US and UK and make up 17% of its parliaments. Saadia Zahidi, the WEF's head of constituents who is spearheading the gender programme, calls this the "external glass ceiling" about which an annual meeting of top people can do nothing.
Roger Carr, the chairman of Centrica who is leading efforts to get more women appointed to British boards, agrees. "Davos is a special place populated by the most senior decision makers. The fact is that the number of women in that position is quite small. Davos is just the symptom of something that happened way, way back." Centrica sends just two delegates and both the chief executive and chairman happen to be men.
With the cost of the meeting astronomical - delegates have to pay for five nights' stay as a minimum - not to mention the annual membership fees of about £100,000 for the strategic partners subject to the quota, many companies are happy to talk the talk while hoping that others do the walking.
So why even bother to set a quota? Why not simply accept the status quo at an event which sums up a world governed by just 1% of its population? Is the whole gender parity programme part of a cynical PR exercise to encourage a belief that the most powerful people in the world care about half the world's population?
There are two answers to this from within Davos. The first, that it is not a numbers exercise but good business, is summed up by Carr when he says: "This is nothing to do with PR. It's just good business. I've sat on single gender boards and mixed ones and the latter improves the dynamics of the meetings and ultimately the decision making itself."
This view is echoed by WEF founder Klaus Schwab, who says: "A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential." The more popular sessions dealing with gender tended to be those discussing this "diversity dividend" or whether "decision making is better when there's a diverse set of people making the decisions".
This idea plays into one theme of this year's Davos: that as the current economic and political crisis was made by men, the inclusion of more women can only help matters. Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, brought a cheer to proceedings when he said: "What we need is a revolution led by women. I think women ought to be saying to us men: 'You have made a mess, just get out and let us in'."
Even Christine Lagarde said before becoming the head of the IMF, an institution criticised for its own role in the financial crisis, that the world might be a different place if there had been a bank called "Lehman Sisters".
But there is also a wider political agenda which fits into the idea that diversity will help close the gap between the 1% and the 99% they govern. The charismatic chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, captured this in introducing Gbowee on Wednesday night when she said: "If the central moral imperative of the 19th century was slavery and of the 20th, totalitarianism, the central moral imperative of our time is the equality of girls and women around the world."
There is evidence that investing in girls and women in developing countries does have a dramatic impact on the economy. Cherie Blair, who set up a foundation for women, says the issue is the most important one on the Davos agenda: "I don't think the people who go to Davos deny that this is a major issue … They read the same reports about the value of investing in women in terms of education and employment as I do."
Various studies suggest greater involvement by the poorest and the wealthiest women could help the global economy. The World Food Programme has found that girls and women reinvest 90% of each dollar in their families by buying food, books and medicine, for example. For men, that figure is more like 30% to 40%.
So, if participation at the most senior levels is to be encouraged, what is being done about it? A private breakfast of the forum's female leaders and gender parity board on Wednesday discussed a document due to be published in March which will set out best practices to achieve greater diversity. These include a focus on measurement and audit, mentoring and sponsorship and a change to the way home and work life is shared. None of these are mandatory although an appearance by Viviane Reding, who is considering the introduction of quotas across the eurozone, is keenly anticipated on Friday.
Advocates of change insist that most effort should be directed at the middle management level, the point at which most women fall by the wayside, victims of either family-unfriendly policies or the failure to network for the top jobs. The forum's effort to help involves an outfit called the Young Global Leaders, a network of about 1,000 people who are picked for greatness before the age of 40. Of these, 42% of these are women, while the newly formed Global Shapers of over-achievers under 30 are split 50/50.
The big question is, how many of these graduate to actually run companies or countries? WEF doesn't give out these figures.
However, its efforts to become more inclusive does seem to have led to a marked cultural shift. Anuradha Vittachi, who has been attending Davos for years as founder of the OneWorld development group, says: "The panel used to look at the brown female wearing a sari with her hand up and point to someone else in the audience to ask a question." That is no longer the case, she acknowledges.
Blair says: "If the world doesn't start giving a proper platform for women, then it will fall flat on its face."
Clark agrees. Asked whether leaders are paying lip service to gender equality as they battle to put out the global economic fires, she says: "Maybe, but we can't let them off the hook. We just have to keep on keeping on."