Can Women Save Davos? Quotas Aren't Just Political Correctness

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Can Women Save Davos? Quotas Aren't Just Political Correctness

A new rule requiring more female delegates among the power elite at the upcoming Swiss gathering isn’t just smart for business. Jesse Ellison reports on who's benefiting from gender quotas—and it isn’t only women.

As the world’s ruling class prepares to gather in Davos, Switzerland, for the first time the World Economic Forum is requiring that sponsors send at least one woman in their five-person delegations.

The rule is already generating a backlash. The Telegraph bemoaned that “political correctness has made it all the way to the Swiss alpine peaks,” and noted, a little creepily, that this year, Davos attendees will be “looking forward to the apres-ski.”

But instituting quotas at Davos is the right thing to do—for reasons much more important than just being politically correct. Female progress in the workplace has moved at a glacial pace since the height of the women’s movement 40 years ago, especially in the industries represented in the Alps each January. The measures that have been taken to nudge companies in the right direction—maternity leave, flex time, and so on—may be well-intentioned, but clearly they haven’t gotten us very far. At the current pace, true equity won’t be achieved for decades. And with the world economy still reeling, we don’t have time to wait.

The slew of statistics documenting womens' stalled progress, and why we all suffer for it, is dizzying. And one would think that they’d be enough to convince the world’s biggest brains to make a more concerted effort to include female voices—particularly at an event that purports to be the platform on which the world’s leaders “shape the global agenda.” Evidently, they needed a push.

Last year, just 17 percent of attendees were female—an improvement on recent years, certainly, but nowhere near gender parity. The numbers reflect the lack of gender balance in the upper echelons of business and government around the world: In 2010, just 12 of the global Fortune 500 companies were run by women; one in 10 board members on Europe’s top listed companies were female; and in the U.S., women held just 16.8 percent of the 535 seats in Congress.

Research from the London Business School suggests that productivity levels go up when men and women work in tandem—in part because gender parity counters the idea of groupthink.

These figures are particularly disturbing given that gender parity is not just good for business, it’s good for everyone. In its annual survey on global gender equity, the World Economic Forum itself said closing the employment gender gap could increase U.S. GDP by as much as 9 percent. In the developing world, the Center for Work-Life Policy estimates that utilizing women could push per capita income up 14 percent by 2020, and 20 percent by 2030. “Study after study,” says Christina Tchen, White House director of public engagement, “shows that increasing education levels and prosperity of women and girls has been able to contribute to social stability and economic progress.”

The top-down approach may not be popular, but it works. Norway famously embraced quotas in 2002 and began requiring that 40 percent of all board members at state-owned and publicly listed companies be women. The measure sparked massive public debate, and success was by no means immediate, but now it’s considered such a success that in 2008, Spain introduced a similar recommendation, and both France and Britain are discussing following suit. Implementing these requirements, rather than letting them happen over time, makes for a difficult transition, even after the debates die down. But the trickle-down effect could be tremendous.

Companies that have both men and women in leadership positions have a higher return on their investments, and recent research from the London Business School suggests that productivity levels go up when men and women work in tandem—in part because gender parity counters the idea of groupthink, or the frequency of like-minded groups to defend ideas that may be ill-conceived. A McKinsey survey recently determined that more than 70 percent of companies that made efforts to empower female employees in emerging markets either experienced or expected to experience increased profits as a direct result of those efforts.

To a certain extent, wage gaps and other inequities stem from the fact that women are competing in fields that have always been dominated by men—working under policies and systems that inherently favor male attributes and make it difficult for women to get ahead at work without making sacrifices at home. As the World Economic Forum found in a survey released last year, employees around the world report that the biggest barrier to female leadership is “patriarchal corporate culture.”

Subtle forces like these are hard to shake. But a top-down approach can do it. Consider Sweden, which in 1995 implemented a use-it-or-lose-it policy for paternity leave. Today, more than 80 percent of Swedish fathers take four months off for the birth of a child, up from 4 percent a decade ago. Imagine if other countries did the same: As more men take time off to care for their children, the burden of parenthood would no longer fall on women alone. Ultimately, employers would stop looking at young, fertile women and think, why bother investing? We’d all be equally worthy of investment.

Some argue that the quota system is insulting to women. As Kirsty MacArthur, of Heartwood Wealth Management, said, “I feel uncomfortable with positive discrimination. Women should achieve success based on their own merit, not as part of a quota.”

Well, yes, in an ideal world, merit would suffice. But if the pace of female progress in the workplace has taught us anything, it’s that reaching gender equality any time soon will require a shove, not just a nudge.

Jesse Ellison is a writer and editor for Newsweek, covering society, culture, business, and health. She also co-authors the Equality Myth and can be found on Tumblr.

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