Last year on the way to the World Economic Forum's meeting in Davos, investment banker Jane Gladstone unwrapped eyeshades for her flight—and then didn't sleep a wink. In the next seat was Michele Burns, chief executive of Mercer, the Marsh & McLennan consulting unit. They talked through the night. "That's a very Davos experience," says Gladstone, who leads Evercore Partners' financial services advisory business. The two women have since introduced each other to business contacts.
That's the way things happen at Davos, but relatively few women have the opportunity to attend the big networking event in the Alps. About 16 percent of last year's delegates were women, roughly the same as in 2005, according to the WEF. That's up from 9 percent a decade ago, when organizers began to seek out more women.
To boost the number of female attendees, the forum's 100 strategic partners—companies including Goldman Sachs (GS) and Volkswagen that donate more than $500,000 a year to the organization—have been asked to fill at least one of their five allotted Davos slots with a woman. "It's a fairly aggressive policy," says Saadia Zahidi, who heads the WEF's gender parity program.
The problem for the WEF is that founder Klaus Schwab bills Davos as a meeting where elite leaders talk candidly about global problems, and there aren't many women who run companies or countries. "What makes Davos Davos is that Bill Gates and Richard Branson and the Nobel Prize winners are there," says Herminia Ibarra, a professor at French business school INSEAD. "Women are not at the top, and they want the top people."
Of the world's 500 biggest companies, fewer than 3 percent have female chief executives, and fewer than 20 countries are led by women, Zahidi says. "There is a pretty clear reason for why we have been wavering," she says. "The reality is that there are very few women that occupy these positions." This year's suggested quota may double the number of women attending from the 100 companies, she says. The suggestion isn't being heeded by everyone. Deutsche Bank (DB) has no women on its list, although it could have gained an extra slot if it had a female attendee.
A Davos roster that's about 20 percent women won't add a sufficient female perspective, says Marie Wilson, author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World. She thinks 30 percent would be a better minimum goal. "It's really important to get those numbers. It would normalize the conversation and just take the gender issue off the table," she says.
Mercer's Burns points out that most companies have women who can carry their end of the conversation at Davos. "And if there isn't one," she says, "that's a problem too."
The bottom line: The WEF is encouraging companies to send more female executives to Davos. In 2010, 16 percent of attendees were women.