When it comes to advancing women to the highest levels of business and policy making, "We have to dare the difference and we have to speak about it," International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde told a World Economic Forum session on women leadership.
Among the participants on Lagarde's female-dominated panel: Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust.
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The next panel Lagarde participated in told a different story: She was the only woman, joining two central bankers, two current and former cabinet ministers and the head of an international institution.
Thirty-nine years after the forum's annual meetings began in Davos, Switzerland, female participation hasn't topped 20 percent of delegates. And that's for the entire conference: Excluding moderators, there were only men among the bankers and policy makers discussing "Global Financial Context," for instance, and executives and lawmakers on the "Global Energy Context" were also all male.
"The debate is still dominated by males frustrated by the crisis created by male-oriented industries," said Kim Sung Joo, a businesswoman who co-chaired the election campaign last year for South Korea's first female president. "The forum is reflective of the industries that used to lead. It's not broad enough."
Kim, whose Sungjoo Group owns German fashion brand MCM, joins delegates who point to an array of mechanisms the forum, like the business and political world, could adopt to be more inclusive. The shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge, Internet-based economy is one element the forum is overlooking, and cheaper access might lure a wider spectrum of delegates including younger leaders, Kim said.
Davos reflects a global community in which women are still struggling to become leaders.
Women represent just 17 percent of independent directors at companies in the U.S. Standard & Poor's 500 stock index, barely above the 16 percent level of 2007, executive recruiter Spencer Stuart said in a November report. In the European Union, women with board positions climbed to 15.8 percent in October, according to European Commission figures.
"The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting engages the highest levels of leadership from a variety of sectors," the forum said in an e-mailed response to questions. "Participation figures at the Annual Meeting are a reflection of the scarcity of women in this external pool."
The proportion of female delegates, 17 percent this year, is up from 9 percent in 2002, the statement said. Women accounted for 22 percent of speakers. In addition to the panel on women in leadership, "There are also public and private sessions focused on the gender digital divide, the empowerment of girls, and public-private collaboration on closing the economic gender gap," the statement said.
Women were feted at Davos even as they remained a minority. Ernst & Young Global Ltd. and Forbes magazine organized a Jan. 25 reception for the "100 Most Powerful Women" at the Hotel Steigenberger Belvedere, including Sandberg and Yahoo! Inc. Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer. Bank of America Corp. hosted an all-women networking reception at the Hotel Schatzalp, the former sanatorium perched 300 meters above the town.
For Huguette Labelle, Transparency International's chief and the only woman among the forum's six co-chairs, the success of this year's discussions would be determined by how much the gender gap featured in the debate.
"I'm looking for a distinct recognition that we cannot move forward without much greater gender parity at all levels," Labelle said in an interview on the conference's first day. "We need direct recognition that gender equality in both business and politics will be high on the agenda."
After the closing session, she focused on UBS AG Chairman Axel Weber's pledge to attack gender stereotypes and female empowerment. It was a "strong message," Labelle said.
The conference's founder, Klaus Schwab, also touched on gender equality as he bid farewell to the forum's attendees.
"What a wonderful way to end," said Schwab from the stage, pointing to The Davos Choir, which had performed for the forum. "With as many women as men, that's very important."
For some, the difficulty is that improving gender parity in Davos and beyond mask the fact that attitudes haven't changed.
"We need CEOs to believe in it, not to pay lip service," Lubna Olayan, deputy chairwoman and CEO of Saudi Arabia's Olayan Financing Co., said on the women's leadership panel.
Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at Fontainebleau, France-based INSEAD business school, who moderated the panel, saw the "cliff at the mid-career level" as one of the biggest barriers to progress in getting women to the top of organizations.
Talking about the hurdles would be a start, said Facebook's Sandberg. "Women are held back by the soft stuff that people don't talk about," she said.
Lagarde also encouraged speaking up.
"Because the measurements, the yardsticks, have been cast in stone by others before them, in order to compare and compete they have to use the same measurements," Lagarde said of women in leadership. "Explain, dare, stand up."
For James Turley, chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young, the solution may also lie in extending a quota-like system to all the institutions that come to the Alpine resort, he said in an interview. Under a policy introduced in 2011, the WEF's 100 strategic partners, companies including Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Yahoo, receive a fifth delegate slot if they fill it with a woman.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding also concluded quotas were needed: The commission has proposed European rules for a 40 percent quota to favor women over equally qualified men for supervisory board seats.
"I don't like to intervene very strongly, but I thought it was the only way," Reding told the women's panel on Jan. 25. "I tried to do it first with asking the companies to do it by themselves. What was the result? Nothing."
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