News from Davos

In Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finds it impossible to leave a claustrophobic tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos. How will women attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum react to the Swiss mountain resort’s charms and challenges?

Anya Schiffrin, wife of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist and Columbia University professor, has been drawing a large and sympathetic following to her blog for Reuters.

As one of the “desperate Davos wives”, she talks of the humility of being a mere appendage and of being pointedly ignored by an audience hungry to meet the real power-brokers.

Wives, mistresses, girlfriends. We are the hangers-on, the bottom feeders of the great circus that is the World Economic Forum.

But what of the 16 per cent of bona fide Davos delegates who are women? I spoke with Amanda Mackenzie, chief marketing officer for Aviva, the life assurance group, between sessions earlier today. Mackenzie is also a steering group member of the enquiry into women on boards in the UK and a non-executive director of Mothercare, the mother-and-baby goods retailer.

Q: What has the reaction been to the “fifth woman” rule, which saw Davos impose a rule that one in five of a group of attendees must be female ?

Amanda Mackenzie: Women seem to be in two minds. They almost apologise for their presence, self-deprecatingly saying they are the “fifth woman”, but then, when they look around to see who else is there, find that they should be there after all. The sense of entitlement has grown during the conference and I think the real impact will be when they return to their corporate headquarters with great ideas, more confidence and a better network of contacts.

Q: What has been the mood of the gender diversity debates you have attended?

AM: Generally, I think [there has been] a sense of frustration. There’s recognition that there is no silver bullet. On the one hand, there are inspiring women who know they work harder than their male counterparts but are just getting on with it, like Linah Mohohlo, governor of the Bank of Botswana. On the other, there are the great societal issues like the continuing abuse of women in war zones, where women are as vulnerable as ever. My work for the Lord Davies enquiry [into women on boards] has been specifically focused on FTSE boards, while here in Davos the debate is about the role of women in society and some fundamental issue around the societal impact of gender equality.

Q: Do any men attend these sessions?

AM: Not many, perhaps 10 per cent, but there are men there. Yesterday I was a guest at a session chaired by Damien O’Brien, global chairman and chief executive of Egon Zehnder, the executive search firm, and J. Frank Brown, dean of Insead. There were a number of recogniseable male chief executives in the audience.

Q: Is there any sense of changing attitudes?

AM: I’m not sure that boards generally are aware of the challenge or of the business case for diversity. Chief executives with daughters are an exception. They absolutely want their daughters to succeed and that helps inform their attitude to women in the workplace in general.

Q: What about quotas – is there support?

AM: There are some more vociferous women who see it as the only way to go and say “Let’s live with the tokenism, because it will only be temporary”, but in my work for women on boards, there were women not quite yet at board level who wanted to get to the C-suite on their own merits without quotas.

Q: What support did you have in your career?

AM: I was recruited by Aviva three years ago and I can honestly say I’ve had nothing but support from my chairman, Andrew Moss. Whether it was giving time working on Lord Davies’ steering committee or joining the Mothercare board, there has been a generosity of spirit that has been fantastic. I think generally, when you’re in your twenties it’s important to have people around you who give you confidence to be yourself. Women tend to be less confident than men and then take knocks along the way. It’s important at that early stage to have a boss or senior figure who can boost your confidence so that your career stays on track.

Q: Anything unexpected at Davos?

AM: I was attending an industry session, so nothing to do with gender diversity, and spoke at some length about our investment strategy. At the end the man chairing the session stood to sum up, ignored everything I’d said, avoided eye contact, and opened his remarks with “Gentlemen…”. I felt I’d gone back 200 years!

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.