The Guardian, 25 January 2012
A year after organisers introduced a quota, more than 80% of those gathered at a meeting for the global power elite are men. Will it ever change?
To register for this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, delegates fill in a profile page pre-set with the silhouette of a shadowy man. A year after imposing a quota on the biggest companies to encourage more women to attend, the image still fits the gender
profile of more than 80% of delegates.
Despite the quota, just 17% of the gathering of world business, political and campaign are women. This percentage is the highest yet in the 40 odd years of the event, up from 16% in 2011 and just 9% in 2002, but it still gives a handy guide to the headway women have made in penetrating the top of the business, political and media elite.
I've been to Davos once before when I tackled the late nights and icy roads while five months pregnant. I thought once was enough. But five years on, I wanted to find out how much has changed and am back.
Saadia Zahidi, head of constituents at WEF who has spearheaded the programme of increasing diversity, says it has actively sought out women for panels (some 20% of all panellists are women), made the issue of gender the subject of more sessions and
added a gender lens to general discussions on the economy or health. Her group was also responsible for the introduction of a quota for "strategic partners" - the top 100
companies attending the mountainside event - which dictates that one in every 5 passes has to be a woman. A fifth of them decided just to bring four people.
An advisory board on gender parity has been set up and is running a series of sessions in Davos, though a brief look at the programme today suggests they are swamped by those on more general economic issues.
Given the dire state of many economies this year, why are they even bothering with gender? There's a cynical answer to this but 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 women could help the global economy.
The World Food Programme 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%.
At the other end of the financial scale, Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, said last November: "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."
Last night I attended a dinner where women such as media maven Tina Brown, Heather Macgregor, the headhunter, and the first lady of Iceland outnumbered men. There was even an African-American man, far more of a minority here than women. The conference starts today and we'll see whether any other events match this diversity.