A female quota at Davos? Really?

January 14, 2011: 2:06 PM ET

The World Economic Forum is mandating its strategic partners to bring at least one woman with them to Davos. Why have we not gotten there on our own yet?

Indra Nooyi

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi will have a bit more female company this year.

I'm not one to normally wade into the arena of gender politics. I'm worried I'll be too insensitive. Or somehow inappropriate. And at least as far as workplace equality goes, I am inclined to think it's a topic better left to female journalists. (Is that already inappropriate?)

But news that the 100 corporate "strategic partners" of this year's World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland – a group that includes companies like Goldman Sachs (GS), Deutsche Bank (DB), and News Corp. (NWS) — would be required to bring at least one woman among their five delegates to the conference got me thinking. I have a two year-old daughter, so now I have more of a stake in this whole game. Should I be happy for her as a result of this news? Or frustrated that the gender gap is still so wide that a quota is even necessary?

I do think it's a pretty sorry state of affairs when world economic leaders are running their annual meeting invite-list like a grade school gym class kickball team-selection process (one girl per team on the field at all times!). On the other hand, maybe something had to be done: Women only made up between 9% and 15% of attendees in Davos in the years from 2001 to 2005, and just a shade higher, at 17%, last year. While one in five would seem to be not too much of a stretch with some gentle encouragement, apparently the WEF thought the time for that had passed. In 2011, they're doing things by diktat.

Is one-in-five the right ratio to aspire to? Fifty-fifty, while perhaps Utopian, unfortunately seems impossible, at least anytime soon. The financial services industry – which makes up a large portion of WEF attendees alongside politicians, the media, and academia – has never been a place that women flock to. In the past ten years, while the number of women in the labor force rose by 4.1%, the female workforce in finance shrank by 2.6%. The likes of Goldman Sachs and their ilk are still male-dominated strongholds, and the gender discrimination lawsuits against them are still ongoing.

And while you occasionally read of some billionaire female Chinese tycoon, women still make up a paltry 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Sadly, maybe 20% is higher than the current order of things would even call for. I have no idea. Good thing no one asked me where to set the bar.

The women are smarter?

Here's a hopeful (if far-fetched) thought: maybe there has been such a high historical percentage of men at Davos because some women choose not to go. (Danger: approaching inappropriateness again…) Seriously. Maybe some women have avoided the annual "big idea" confab because they don't have as much interest in the preening and navel-gazing as so many men seem to have.

Do their bullshit radars keep them away? Davos, after all, is supposed to address the world's biggest issues ever year in thoughtful and provocative discussion on issues such as economic growth and financial risk. A lot of good that's done us of late. This year, its web site says the forum plans to address the issue of "How." How indeed.

Which women can we hope to see in the Alps -- and will they be concerned whether people think they're only there because their bosses had to invite them? We'll likely see the regulars: Sallie Krawcheck of Bank of America (BAC), JP Morgan's (JPM) Heidi Miller and Goldman Sachs' Abby Joseph Cohen. The quota will provide an opportunity to hear from lesser-known female voices, but that's only if they overcome the stigma from getting a last-minute, mandated invite.

The bottom line is that if there are high level, meaningful discussions going on about how to fuel global economic growth, women should be at the table. And corporate leaders shouldn't have to be forced into inviting them to it -- by 2011, those leaders should be doing it on their own.

But back to my daughter. Am I excited on her behalf? Truth be told, I'd rather she become a billionaire recycling magnate than get the mandatory nod for an invite to an annual celebration of communal importance. Same way I'd rather she direct a wonderful movie than get invited to the Oscars. First, though, I've got to get her on that kickball team.

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About This Author
Duff McDonald
Duff McDonald
Contributing Editor, Fortune

Duff McDonald is a contributing editor at Fortune. He has also written for New York, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Portfolio, GQ, WIRED, Time, Newsweek, and others. In 2004, he was the recipient of two Canadian National Magazine Awards -- best business story (gold) and best investigative reporting (silver) -- for "Conrad's Fall" in National Post Business. Last Man Standing, his biography of Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2009. He is also the co-author, with Owen Burke, of The CEO, a satire.

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