Laura Liswood

(WOMENSENEWS)–The few women who make it to the top in business often realize that they are just that: a few. Now the World Economic Forum, the exclusive network of the business world’s power brokers, is making a formal effort to increase the power, participation and visibility of women in its proceedings.

The aptly named Women Leaders Initiative was created at the behest of women whose eyebrows were raised when they didn’t see many colleagues like themselves at forum events. Launched in NewYork at last January’s annual meeting, its goal was to increase women’s participation in the organization beginning with this winter’s gathering, which begins today in Davos, Switzerland.

The World Economic Forum is perhaps best known for the protests it has sparked in the past few years by predominantly young activists who oppose globalization. The protests are an acknowledgement of the massive influence the forum holds over the creation of government policies relating to business and industry practices.

The forum’s influence is derived from the interaction of its members, drawn from the world’s 1,000 largest corporations, with world leaders in the business, political, intellectual and other arenas. Toward that end, the forum sponsors the ultimate in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms: annual global and regional meetings that foster collaboration among participants. It has held nongovernmental organization consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations since 1995.

The forum’s loosely worded mission is to “improve the state of the world” through economic growth and social progress. But progress and world improvement are in the eye of the beholder, a fact acknowledged in the very existence of a group designed to ensure geographic diversity.

The First Steps Towards a Women’s Initiative

Forum women began to foster their own collaboration about five years ago in Davos, when they noticed that they were few in number.

Member corporations must be represented by their chief executive officers and very few large corporations have women at the helm, thus few women qualified as bona fide members. Currently only six women head of Fortune 500 corporations. In addition, however, the women present noticed precious few female nonmember participants in the meeting, such as those invited because they are public figures, personalities from the cultural world or members of academia.

One of them was Laura Liswood, co-founder of the initiative and head of a women’s diversity effort at forum member Goldman Sachs. She and others began cooking up events to attract women. As a former corporate manager at TWA and elsewhere, an author and an experienced leader of women-oriented businesses and organizations, Liswood had in 1997 co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders, a group of former women prime ministers and heads of state based at Harvard University. The council agreed to sponsor dinners featuring primarily female panels focusing on the challenges of leadership.

“Similar breakfast forums were held, and these events started things bubbling around the issue of getting more women involved,” Liswood says.

The forum was receptive. Its leadership believes women’s voices are important to the richness of dialogue at its meetings, especially as more women lead corporations, civil organizations and governments, according to an e-mail from forum spokeswoman Claudia Gonzales.

A Slow Start

The World Economic Forum had itself noticed the low level of participation among women, but had been disappointed by its own efforts. In the forum’s Global Leaders for Tomorrow development program, which each year selects 100 young players in business to participate in the forum, women made up 15 percent of the program at its 1993 inception. Although women’s participation has grew to 40 percent for the 2003 class from 37 percent in 2002, the numbers are still short of the forum’s goal of about 50 percent.

Gonzales says it’s more difficult to find women in leadership positions, even among the younger candidates in the Leaders for Tomorrow program, than men among both the forum’s member companies and in the world at large.

“In spite of a steady increase in women’s participation in the workforce, women are still under-represented in top management. This discrepancy is all the more pronounced for women in emerging economies,” Gonzales wrote.

Gonzales says that 11 percent of participants at the 2002 annual meeting were women, an increase from the previous year, although she did not provide an exact figure for 2001. The figure for 2003 shows a slight increase to 12 percent of participants.

“I think it’s a function of whose networks you’re tapping into,” Liswood says. In a similar vein, she says the forum has been disappointed by the relatively high number of women who declined invitations, a problem she believes can be avoided. Instead of worrying about the low acceptance rate to invitations, Liswood says, the forum should send more invitations to women. “This isn’t a science,” she says.

While there’s no hard data on why women have been declining invitations, Liswood believes it may be due to the feeling on the part of many women, particularly at the high levels of business, that they have to keep their noses to the grindstone back at the office.

With women and the forum interested, Liswood says the Women Leaders Initiative was pushed forward when then-forum managing director Donna Redel got involved as co-founder, and the two wrote a mission statement. (Redel has since left to work at a private firm.)

Some big-name corporations agreed to become sponsors of the initiative, which means that they will provide the necessary financial support it needs. In addition to Liswood’s employer Goldman Sachs, package-delivery company FedEx, consumer-products companies Sara Lee Corp. and the Coca-Cola Company, computing companies Hewlett-Packard and IBM, financial companies Citigroup, MasterCard International and Merrill Lynch, and other big firms have all thrown their support toward the effort.

The Women Leaders Initiative took its place last January among formal initiatives on corporate performance, global health and others, and was launched at the 2002 annual meeting with a popular brunch attended by senior forum women and others who support the idea, Liswood says. A press conference was held, as were women-focused panels–one on women in the Muslim world and another on the next generation of women leaders.

Raising Awareness, Sharing Networks

The goals go beyond putting more women in the audience. They include securing a place on the agenda for issues affecting primarily women and increasing women’s participation in all forum activities, which means getting them in the spotlight with men on panels and in high-level, behind-the-scenes meetings.

Tactically, the initiative is forwarding its goals by recommending women with relevant expertise for panels, sponsoring panels on topics germane to women and addressing gender-specific angles during other discussions.

“So if you have a panel on education, get women on the panel and raise questions about gender-specific topics,” Liswood says. “But also consider holding a panel on women in education.”

Most of Liswood’s tactics have been adopted since last year’s launch. Each of the regional meetings has had panels or other events for women leaders and several have had women co-chairs. For the 2003 annual meeting, more women will be represented on panels, with, for example, three women chief executive officers serving as panelists on a major plenary about Leading in a Downturn. A panel discussion of direct interest to women will be held on trust-building for Western and Arab women. And an advisory board of of high level executives and other leaders is being developed for the initiative.

Yet a participation rate of 12 percent in a world that is half female leaves the glass far less than half full.

Victoria Zunitch is a freelance journalist based in New York City who writes often about women in business.

For more information:

World Economic Forum

Council of Women World Leaders