Sheryl Sandberg lingered on stage last week in Davos after leading a panel on “Women as the Way Forward,” and found herself surrounded by a dozen fans -- all save one of them female.
Sandberg, the 42-year-old chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., accepted business cards and chatted with those seeking her attention. The co-chair of the World Economic Forum and her devotees that day constituted what was probably the most female-heavy gathering at Davos.
At a five-day meeting that was more than 80 percent populated by men, women often were a minority of one on panels or not represented at all. Sandberg was one of six co-chairs of the forum; the rest were men. Panels on the future of banking, energy supplies, international finance and global risks were among those with no women except moderators, even with a forum theme of “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Manju George, 29, one of three female co-founders of Intellecap, a business consulting firm based in Hyderabad, India. “You would expect the conversation to move forward. What I like is that the debate is engaging. What I don’t like is that there appears to be no commitments being made.”
Females also were hard to find at many of the private gatherings aimed at shaping the future of the world’s leading industries. One example was a brainstorming session among 25 chief executive officers in the healthcare industry at the Hotel Seehof’s Stuebli restaurant on the morning of Jan. 26. There, Mary Tolan was reminded how much of a minority women still are.
Tolan, the founder and CEO of Accretive Health Inc., a Chicago-based healthcare-services provider, was the only woman around the table. There were others in the room -- sitting on the sidelines, listening in, because they were not the companies’ top executives.
“I expected to see some women because healthcare is more diverse” than other industries like financial services, Tolan said. “It made me make a mental note.
“The forum is about the diversity of ideas and backgrounds so women in CEO positions should be encouraged to participate,” she said in an interview. “Everyone is talking about human capital with companies at 50-50 hiring of women/men in entry- level jobs, but years later, you wonder, where have all the women gone?”
In the U.S., the number of Fortune 500 companies run by women fell to a dozen last year from 15 in 2010, according to Fortune magazine’s ranking. The percentage of women on U.K. boards is 14.9 percent, from 12.5 percent in 2010, according to a group called the “30 Percent Club” that is pushing for change.
Across Europe, the proportion of women on the boards of the top 300 companies grew to 12 percent in 2010 from 8 percent in 2004, an October 2010 report by the European Professional Women’s Network shows. At this rate, gender parity would be reached in 16 years, the report said.
To be sure, two of the globe’s most powerful women, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, were prominent voices at the forum. Female attendance was its highest ever: 17 percent compared with 9 percent a decade ago. The role of women in leadership was a recurring theme.
WEF organizers said they’ve taken steps to promote the forum as a place to give women a voice through initiatives such as the “Global Shapers Community.” It counts 70 members at Davos this year, including Intellecap’s George, who are considered high achievers in their fields and are younger than 30. The group, started in 2011, has gender parity.
“We have made a really strong push to make sure there are more women in speaking roles,” said Saadia Zahidi, senior director and head of constituents at the WEF. “There is still a long way to go. We are working on it.”
About 20 percent of the panel speakers this year are women, up from 17 percent last year, she said. About 80 percent of the WEF’s so-called strategic partner companies brought mixed-gender delegations.
“The question should be, is the forum doing enough to promote talent?” asked John Veihmeyer, chief executive for the Americas at KPMG, the global accounting and professional services firm. “The answer is probably yes. We’ve seen a shift in focus from that on financial capital to recognizing the importance of human capital and a greater emphasis on that.”
Beth Brooke, Washington-based global vice-chair of public policy at Ernst & Young LLP, said she has seen progress in female representation since she started coming to the forum.
Always That Way
“There are just more women executives here than ever before and we are either already friends or really getting to know each other,” said Brooke, 52, whose firm organized the “Celebrating Women’s Leadership” reception at the Hotel Steigenberger Belvedere in Davos on Jan. 27. “It must have always felt that way for the men.”
Even those who’ve reached the pinnacle of deciding the global agenda said there hasn’t been enough progress in infiltrating the boardrooms and organizations that shape society.
“Women have to be heard all over the world,” the IMF’s Lagarde said in an interview at the meeting. “Davos is not a bad place to be heard, but there are many other places around the world where they have to be heard more.”
Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm in Washington, described a lunch where she was the only female attendee. It was focused on participants from outside the U.S. or Europe. When time came to distribute business cards, no one gave her theirs.
“It’s going to take a while,” Kraus said, adding, “but the trend is in the right direction.”
At times, gender was brought up -- the wrong way. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation in Brussels, was the only woman on a panel about 20th-century capitalism failing 21st-century society. When the panelists were asked whether they backed that premise, she was the only one to say yes. Subsequently, one of the male participants asked if this might be a gender issue.
“It was a cute quip but I found it telling that it was only a woman and a trade unionist that was prepared to say that we have lost our moral compass and that business needs to sit down and think about the design of the future of capitalism if it’s going to serve society,” Burrow said in an interview afterward. “Equal treatment is a long way off.”
In one session, entitled “Pundits, Professors and their Predictions,” a member of the audience asked where the women panelists were. Among those on stage: Nouriel Roubini, founder of Roubini Global Economics LLC, Yale University Professor Robert Shiller and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Moderator Nik Gowing of the British Broadcasting Corp. responded that while he understood the issue, it wasn’t his decision.
Hard to Get
Several participants, male and female, pointed out that securing an invitation to Davos is competitive, and the women who get there fought hard to build their careers. Sandberg, whose social-networking company may file for its initial public offering as early as the coming week, made that point.
“Little girls are called bossy,” she told the audience on Jan. 27. “Anyone at Davos who as a girl was called bossy? If you got to Davos you were that. I was,” she said, raising her hand. “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”