DAVOS, Switzerland – Research shows that investing in women is good business and some companies have taken significant steps to increase their female staff, especially at the top — but at the world's premier economic gathering, men still outnumber women by a ratio of more than five to one.
Still, the World Economic Forum is making progress — not only in tackling the gap between men and women appearing on several panels but in producing an index ranking 134 countries on their success in eliminating inequality and establishing a group of 50 influential men and women to focus on ways for women to crack the glass ceiling, especially in business.
Responding to a suggestion from this Global Gender Parity Group, the forum in April 2010 asked its 100 major business members to include at least one woman in its delegation to Davos. The forum's founder Klaus Schwab said the response was full agreement, which has more than doubled the number of women from those companies.
This has also helped to increase the overall percentage of women at the annual meeting of more than 2,500 leaders from business, government and the media from 9 percent in 2001 to more than 16 percent this year.
But, says former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who now heads UN Women — the new agency promoting the advancement of women in all areas including the private sector — there's still a long way to go to get out the message to companies that diversity will improve their understanding, their strategic thinking and their productivity.
After a meeting Friday of the Global Gender Parity Group, Laura Tyson, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that over the past five years she has seen a growing body of well-researched evidence that there are "strong biases that prevent the effective utilization of female talent."
"So we have to understand those biases and arrange frameworks to get around them" including setting specific targets and measuring progress on a regular basis, she said.
J. Frank Brown, dean of INSEAD, one of the world's largest graduate schools of business with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi who chaired the meeting, said since the group was established three years ago he has seen "tremendous progress" including a major commitment by the forum and businesses "being much more open and sharing and collaborating" on what is working to promote women and what isn't.
Sharon Allen, chairman of Deloitte United States, wrote in a new report by the company entitled "The Gender Dividend: Making the business case for investing in women" that in the U.S., women's purchasing power is in excess of $5 trillion and they represent nearly half of all shareholders.
"It would seem to make sense, therefore, that businesses would invest in developing women as workers, executives, and leaders," she said. "But impressive results and sound logic have yet to fully take hold in many parts of the world, including the United States. The advancement of women pales in proportion to their numbers."
Allen said culture and custom are cited as reasons, but she stressed that when businesses and organizations have invested in women "the results have been both profound and dramatic."
The report cites research from the United States and Britain showing that when companies increase the number of women in senior management and on their boards, their economic performance improves significantly — by millions of dollars.
Brown said when he arrived at INSEAD five years ago it had 20 percent women and today it has 34 percent women.
"Once we hit 30 percent, the evaluation of the program went through the roof," he said.
The Gender Equality Project, a Swiss foundation working in partnership with the forum, announced the launch Friday of a new method to measure gender equality in the workplace.
"The project's goal is to provide multinational companies with the first standardized tool that can be universally applied across industries and regions for closing the corporate gender gap," said Nicole Schwab, the project's co-founder.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said the United States rates countries on religious freedom, on combatting sex trafficking, and she intends to introduce legislation calling for a report "on the efforts of our own country and other countries in their efforts to move toward gender parity."
But Livia Jaroka, the only Roma member of the European Parliament, said 90 percent of Roma women don't work and before worrying about closing the gender gap and ensuring the work-life balance, the forum and the international community should focus on "how to get work and make your family able to survive without hunger."