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From Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra at General Motors Co. (GM:US) to Chairman Janet Yellen at the U.S. Federal Reserve to Daniele Nouy at the European Central Bank’s supervisory board, women nabbed top posts last year.
You wouldn’t have known it in Davos. The 2,500 delegates at the World Economic Forum conference were 16 percent female, down from 17 percent in 2013. A session titled “Gender-Driven Growth” with Facebook Inc. (FB:US) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was among the final events and started after many had departed the Swiss resort town.
“Sadly, it hasn’t evolved,” Cherie Blair, a barrister and wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in an interview at the annual event, which she’s attended six times. “There were about 15 percent when I came the first time, and here we are at a similar level. The percentages are low.”
Special Report: 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
They’re also low in business and politics around the globe. Lagarde said progress has been so slow that quotas should be “a required step.” Her suggestion at Davos -- where the theme was “The Reshaping of the World” -- was echoed by several female delegates and some men, reflecting a frustration at how, despite the conspicuous advances, women have stalled out.
“We’ve tried the mentoring, we’ve tried the welfare, we’ve tried the various diversity training,” said Sue Clark, managing director for Europe at SABMiller Plc. (SAB) It might be time for mandatory targets because “people do what gets measured -- particularly within large companies.”
WEF founder Klaus Schwab called it “ridiculous” to suggest women weren’t well represented in Davos.
“If you look at participation here, you have the most famous women in the world,” he said in an interview with CNN.
The 44th annual conference did draw powerful women, including South Korean President Park Geun Hye, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US) CEO Marissa Mayer, who co-chaired the event with Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin and five men.
Still, Davos was a disappointment to some who attended, considering the headway made around the world in 2013, with Inga Beale becoming the first woman to head Lloyds of London Ltd., Ursula Von Der Leyen named defense minister of Germany and Lynn Good appointed CEO of Duke Energy Corp. (DUK:US) Men dominated most sessions, on topics from climate change and immigration to food security and the future of monetary policy.
“No more all-male panels!” Uschi Schreiber, global markets leader at EY, formerly Ernst & Young, said during a reception the firm hosted to honor women at Davos.
Gender-related discussions were featured on about six of the 250 sessions, which included panels on the opening and closing days, and that was viewed as some progress.
“It has taken years to have the subject of women and gender parity take place in the congress hall and not at the food tent,” said Rick Goings, chairman and CEO of Tupperware Brands Corp. (TUP:US), in Davos.
The WEF has implemented programs to attract more female delegates, and the proportion of women has grown from about 9 percent in 2002. Under a policy designed in 2010, the forum’s 100 strategic partners, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS:US) and Petroleo Brasileiro SA, receive a fifth delegate slot if they fill it with a woman.
Organizers’ hands are tied, said Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program.
“We’re reflecting what is out there in terms of female leadership in government, business and society,” she said.
Women represent just 17 percent of independent directors at companies in the U.S. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, barely above the 16 percent level of 2007, executive recruiter Spencer Stuart said in a November report.
In the European Union, the percentage was 15.8 in October, according to European Commission figures. In 13 countries tracked by McKinsey & Co., Norway had the highest female board representation at 34 percent, ahead of Sweden and France at 27 percent; the figure was 19 percent in Germany and 16 percent in the U.S.
Lagarde’s support of quotas wasn’t endorsed by everyone in Davos. “Either we are a market-driven economy or we are a quota economy,” said Karl-Ludwig Kley, CEO of Merck KGaA. (MRK) “Our job is to find the right person for the right job. If it’s a woman, wonderful. If it’s a man, wonderful. The ground is open.”
Hanna Aase, founder of Wonderloop, a video-profiling application, said it was just a matter of time before setting gender quotas would make sense.
“Why don’t politicians and prime ministers set policies on gender?” Aase said. “It’s a bit like banning smoking.” For decades, “people thought it was their fundamental right.”
Facebook’s Sandberg said during the panel discussion with Lagarde that the status quo was the “tyranny of low expectations.”
“What I really liked from today,” she said, “was the sense of impatience.”
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