Manhattan investment banker Jane Gladstone unwrapped the eyeshades for her 10:45 p.m. Swiss International Airlines AG flight to Zurich last January, and then didn’t sleep a wink.
In the next seat, she discovered, was Michele Burns, chief executive officer of Mercer, a Marsh & McLennan Cos. consulting unit, and a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. director. Gladstone had called Burns seeking to meet at the World Economic Forum’s gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where they were both headed. They talked through the night about the mergers market and job growth.
“That’s a very Davos experience,” says Gladstone, who leads Evercore Partners Inc.’s financial services advisory business. The two have since become friends, Burns says, introducing each other to more business contacts.
While Gladstone and Burns are returning to the Alps this week, they’ll again be among the few women who will benefit from Davos, five days of panels, parties and private deal-making for 2,500 participants that have been a male domain for decades. The female quotient at what the WEF website bills as an “unrivaled platform to shape the global agenda” may be close to 20 percent this year, up from 16 percent last year, because of a new policy to attract more women executives.
That’s still not 30 percent, the level social scientists have found integrates women’s points of view into discussions, says Marie Wilson, author of “Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World” and founder of the White House Project for woman leaders.
“How can you set the global agenda and leave out half the population by not having them reasonably represented?” Wilson says. “Surely there are women who could make up a third of attendees.”
‘That’s the Conundrum’
The proportion of women among Davos delegates has grown from about 9 percent since 2001 as organizers have sought to increase the numbers and added academicians to the program.
The challenge for WEF founder Klaus Schwab is maintaining the Davos brand, says Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the business school INSEAD in Fountainebleau, France. CEOs from around the world attend for candid talks from heads of state and finance ministers or to run into bankers and billionaires on snowy streets, she says, and most of those are men.
“What makes Davos Davos is that Bill Gates and Richard Branson and the Nobel Prize winners are there,” Ibarra says, “Women are not at the top of non-profits, government or business, but you want the top people there. That’s the conundrum.”
Women run just 3 percent of the 500 biggest companies and lead fewer than 20 countries, according to the WEF.
“The reality is that there are very few women that occupy these positions,” says Saadia Zahidi, who heads the WEF’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme. The forum’s goal is to have membership in its Young Global Leaders group of men and women under 40 to be at least half female within five years, up from 40 percent now, she says. “We know the next generation of leaders will have more women.”
Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell says the obstacle to quicker progress is the WEF itself. “If you want to insist on only the CEOs and the very top people, you get the same-old, same-old, same-old,” says Campbell, who chairs the international advisory board for the Kiev, Ukraine-based Foundation for Effective Governance and who attended Davos in the early 2000s when she was teaching at Harvard University.
“They will give women another seat, but it’s not the same as making gender real,” she says. “If they were very serious, they could do ‘Who are the most interesting woman entrepreneurs?’ Don’t confuse Davos with something serious about changing the world agenda -- it’s not.”
Candidates for Invitations
The Alpine retreat does attract powerful women, including, this year, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tarja Halonen, Finland’s first female president. They’ll mix with female executives including Areva SA CEO Anne Lauvergeon and Ellen Kullman, CEO of Dupont Co., who is one of two women among the forum’s six co-chairs. The other is Chanda Kochhar, CEO of India’s ICICI Bank Ltd.
Wilson, who hasn’t been to Davos, says there are ample candidates for the WEF to expand its female roster. Among those on her list: Kiran Bedi, the former director of India’s Bureau of Police Research and Development; Barbara Annis, who consults with companies on gender intelligence and chairs the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Women’s Leadership Board; Michele Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools; and Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.
‘A Scarce Good’
The lack of women in Davos may reflect how the coveted badges are doled out inside companies, says Ibarra, who is returning for a fifth time and leads discussion groups. CEOs often bring the same inner circle. “Getting to go to Davos is a real goodie -- and a scarce good,” she says. “Women may not be in the networks that are tight around choosing who gets it, and it’s been hard for them to be in those groups.”
Under the new policy, the WEF’s 100 strategic partners, companies including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Volkswagen AG that pay $500,000 or more annually to belong to the organization, receive a fifth delegate slot this year if they fill it with a woman. That is expected to more than double the number of women from those companies. Pamela Thomas-Graham, head of talent, branding and communications Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group AG, is attending Davos for the first time.
“It’s a nudge in the right direction,” Zahidi says. About 80 percent of the strategic partners have mixed-gender groups attending, she says.
‘Everybody Hates Quotas’
Among those not filling the extra slot is Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG, which has an all-male group executive committee. A Deutsche Bank spokesman declined to comment. CEO Joseph Ackermann was a Davos co-chairman in 2010.
A WEF push to advance female delegates to about 800 -- or roughly 30 percent -- would remove gender as an issue, Wilson says. When members of any group are rare on the dais or in the audience, she says, they become obvious. On a panel of six people with just one woman, she says, her comments are digested as “what the woman said.”
“What we need is for them to make it normal for the women to be there,” Wilson says. “It’s really important to get those numbers, just to take the gender issue off the table. Everybody hates quotas -- but if you’re going to do a quota, why not go all the way?”
The 30 percent group dynamic threshold was applied to women in companies by Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her 1977 book “Men and Women of the Corporation,” according to Linda Tarr-Whalen, a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy research group based in New York.
30 Percent Club
More recently, a study by Catalyst Inc., a New York-based research firm, found U.S. companies whose boards were 30 percent female in 2001 had on average 45 percent more women corporate officers by 2006 than those with male boards.
In the U.K., a new group called the 30 Percent Club aims to bring the number of female directors at publicly traded companies to that level in five years from what it says is about 10 percent now. The founders include Win Bischoff, chairman of Lloyds Banking Group Plc, Stephen Green, former chairman of HSBC Holdings Plc, and Helena Morrissey, CEO of London-based Newton Investment Management Ltd. The French parliament went further on Jan. 13 with a law requiring the boards of the largest companies to be 40 percent female by 2015.
Steering to Women
The Davos fifth-slot effort emerged from discussions within the organization and with the strategic partners, says Zahidi, who heads a WEF group that works on gender parity and global competitiveness and on leveling the playing field for women in economies around the world.
“Women make up one half of the world’s human capital,” she says. “Closing the global gender gap and making use of that talent is vital for the continued improvement of global competitiveness.”
The WEF issues a Global Gender Gap report, ranking 134 countries on 14 measures of treatment of and opportunities for men and women; the fifth annual report was published in October. Iceland had the highest score; the U.S. made the top 20 for the first time, coming in at 19th place. Yemen was last.
In Davos this week, both the WEF’s Women Leaders Community group and its Global Gender Parity Group will meet. The parity group consists of 50 women and 50 men, including Talal Al Zain, CEO of Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Co., and Laura D. Tyson, head of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration and a professor of business and administration and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Big Economic Themes
The conference program features discussions on education, public health and economic growth that Zahidi says may steer to women’s issues. The schedule for Jan. 27 includes panels on empowering girls and women and on closing the gender gap, topics that drew crowds in the last two years. A cultural program that evening is called “Women of Will: Shakespeare’s Wonderful and Witty Women.”
Nicole Schwab, the daughter of the WEF founder, plans to present the findings of a two-year study conducted by the Geneva, Switzerland-based Gender Equality Project, which she co-founded. Goldman Sachs has scheduled a lunch party for its 10,000 Women program for female entrepreneurs.
“The WEF is trying to figure it out,” says Iris Bohnet, director of the women and public policy program Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who is on the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment.
“But women are one of the big economic themes of the 21st century,” Bohnet says. “I hope the business case for closing the gender gap or the relevance of equal opportunity will become leading ideas for the whole event.”
As it is now at Davos, “it’s striking” how men are in the vast majority, says Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.
Davos isn’t just about public events. For many, private strategy sessions and closed-door meetings with clients are the reason to trek to the Swiss ski town. Last year, about 30 competing bank CEOs huddled in a back room in the conference center to discuss U.S. regulatory reform. They later met with policymakers, including then-U.S. House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.
‘Pool of Talent’
The scarcity of women behind those doors or in meetings contemplating mergers and acquisitions robs them of career-building insider knowledge and contacts that could help bring other women into the power ranks, Wilson says. “Women want to be where the deals are made because the deals are what people go to these conferences to do,” she says.
For their part, CEOs should integrate more women for their companies’ sakes, says Tarr-Whalen, who is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She says companies competing for business in emerging markets, in particular, could use insight from female leaders.
“You have to look at where the pool of talent is for the future,” Tarr-Whalen says. “Look at the markets: Who is buying? Where is the wealth going? Where are the educated people? Increasingly, these are stories about women.”
For Burns, the Mercer CEO who is returning for a fourth time, Davos has delivered with unexpected encounters, she says. She likes connecting with so many clients in one place, saving weeks of travel. And she always makes a point of going to at least one discussion that’s out of her orbit. In 2010, she says, she listened to scientists talk about life on other planets.
“It’s broadening,” Burns says. “Not only do you become more deeply grounded in world affairs, but you can credential yourself in conversations as being someone who goes to Davos.”
The shift to 30 percent women could be made without damaging the quality of discourse, Burns says. “It’s very few of these companies where there isn’t a woman that is going to carry her weight,” she says. “And if there isn’t one, that’s a problem too.”
-- With assistance from Christine Harper and Janet Lorin in New York. Editors: Anne Reifenberg, John Fraher