Quota imposed to try to boost "Davos Woman"

ZURICH (Reuters) - Organisers of the annual gathering of the world’s rich and powerful in the Swiss ski resort of Davos are imposing a gender quota on top companies to try to lift the number of women at the male-dominated event.

A woman walks past the logo of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the congress centre of the Swiss mountain resort of Davos January 29, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann (POLITICS BUSINESS)

The World Economic Forum WEF.L will for the first time require that its around 100 "strategic partners" -- comprising many of the world's top firms -- include one woman among their five delegates to the meeting which starts on January 26.

“There are so few women heads of state, CEOs. This is an attempt to nudge towards gender parity in terms of participation,” Saadia Zahidi, who heads the WEF’s women leaders and gender parity groups, told Reuters.

She noted that fewer than 3 percent of the Fortune Global 500 chief executives are women, only 15 percent of ministers and parliamentarians are female and less than 20 of the world’s presidents or prime ministers are women.

Zahidi said the policy should increase the proportion of women to about 20 percent of the 2,500 participants at Davos from the 15-17 percent where it has stagnated in recent years.

She hoped it would enrich debate at the gathering of dark-suited bankers, captains of industry, policymakers and academics, set to be opened this year with a speech by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

“Any form of diversity should lead to more inclusive, wider perspectives. In companies, more diverse teams make better decisions,” she said.

The WEF is taking other steps to promote female leaders, including a target of gender parity within five years in its community of young global leaders as well as discussion groups to identify barriers to women’s economic participation.

In a WEF report on the corporate gender gap late last year, Zahidi said many leading companies were failing to capitalise on the talents of women in the workforce.

The report also cited research which showed that closing the male-female employment gap could boost U.S. economic growth by as much as 9 percent and the euro zone by up to 13 percent.

However, of the dozens of panel discussions on the programme at Davos, only one concerns the gender debate, while Ernst & Young is the only firm to welcome the new arrivals with an evening cocktail celebrating women’s empowerment.

And the WEF itself, set up in 1971 and based in Geneva, still has some way to go to make itself more diverse, with no women on its managing board and just two of its 12 senior directors females. (Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by Paul Casciato)