Davos reaches out to men of the mountains

Davos has struggled to shake its alpha-male image, despite its best efforts. Fewer than a fifth of leaders present last year were women.

Hence the flurry of interest in the World Economic Forum’s efforts to increase the number of women attending this year’s conference by insisting on quotas.

The Forum’s 500 strategic partners – companies such as Coca-Cola and HSBC – have been asked to ensure that at least one in five of their delegates should be a woman (assuming they send five). Saadia Zahidi, who heads the Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, says that although formal attendance numbers are not yet in, the number of female delegates from the 500 partners is likely to double this year.

In fact, news of this quota initiative has emerged eight months after the WEF put the policy in place last April. Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s chairman, alluded to it in his PBS interview with Charlie Rose in October (around minute 13, if you’re interested). In the UK, it has generated some predictable copy, from the dismissive (The Guardian: “Finding one suitably senior candidate… may prove a challenge”) to the suggestive (Daily Telegraph: “[This] will have many a Davos delegate looking forward to the apres-ski”).

But let’s not knock Davos for trying. Its captive elite audience of business chieftains could have disproportionate clout if they sign up to some of the innovations on gender that will be floated there. A workshop on best practices in business, organised through the Gender Parity Group (50 men and 50 women from business), could send some important messages to the boardroom. A new global standard for gender equality, being developed separately by the Gender Equality Project, also has the potential to concentrate business leaders’ minds.

The project, co-founded by Nicole Schwab, Klaus’s daughter, and ex-consultant Aniela Unguresan, will launch its new global certification system in gender equality at Davos on January 28, aimed at measuring and tracking companies’  progress in areas such as pay equality, training and work-life balance. As Schwab and Unguresan explained last year on the Harvard Business Review blog-site,

This methodology can serve as a management tool and at the same time form the basis for setting a global standard in gender equality, and benchmarking companies against it.

Like all such benchmarking efforts, it runs the risk that companies will simply tick the boxes in order to secure the hallmark. But if it is successful, the Schwabs will, in due course, presumably be able to apply it annually to the Forum itself.

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