Gender quotas go to Davos!

Date: February 1, 2011
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One in every five delegates to the World Economic Forum must be a woman!

Each year, prime ministers, bankers, business tycoons and other movers and shakers of the global elite gather at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos. And each year, one key thing has been missing: women.

Now, in an attempt to improve the traditionally dismal gender balance at this year’s event, the WEF has for the first time imposed a minimum quota of women.

The forum’s “strategic partners” – a group of about 100 companies including Barclays, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank – have been told they must bring along at least one woman in every group of five senior executives sent to the high-profile event. Strategic partners account for 500 of the 2,500 participants expected this year at a gathering where David Cameron will rub shoulders with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, historian Niall Ferguson, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, at least one member of the Saudi royal family and countless business supremos and members of the academic elite.

“The World Economic Forum annual meeting engages the highest levels of leadership from a variety of sectors and participation figures are a reflection of the scarcity of women in this external pool,” said Saadia Zahidi, who heads the gender parity programme at the WEF and came up with the quota plan.

At Davos, the world’s most powerful men (and a few women) broker multimillion-pound deals behind the scenes of the conferences. The forum’s black-tie dinners, cocktail parties and other less formal encounters are the ultimate networking events and those present follow the old “contacts lead to contracts” motto.

But so far, relatively few women have benefited from this high-level schmoozing. Women made up only 9-15% of those present between 2001 and 2005. Progress has been made – last year 17% were women – but Zahidi insists they can do much better.

“Closing gender gaps has been an important concern at the World Economic Forum for the last decade,” she said.

Fewer than 3% of chief executives of the world’s biggest 500 companies are women, and a little over 15% of ministerial and parliamentary positions are occupied by women, the WEF said today.

Critics may argue that one in five is actually a pretty small achievement, and real progress would call for two or three. Just finding one suitably senior candidate this year, however – given the gender balance in the global business elite – may prove enough of a challenge.



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