A woman’s lot

Liz Wilson is chief executive at Stack


I have been reading the list of women attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos with great interest (yes, a list does exist).

The obligatory presence of high-powered women including Randi Zuckerberg, the Queen of Jordan, Arianna Huffington and Marissa Myer at the well-heeled elite global event aside, it is more fascinating to read about extraordinary women like the Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has been trying to fight corruption in her country, brave Pakistani woman Khalida Brohi trying to better the lives of women in her country and filmmaker Sharmeed Obaid-Chinoy who made a documentary on her life, and Daphne Bavelier, a University of Geneva scientist who has studied the beneficial effects of activities like playing video games.

But their inspirational stories and their exciting work are all getting buried under the deafening noise talking about the declining female attendance at the event. The hullabaloo around the shocking figure of only 15% of Davos attendees being women is almost distracting. It misses a fundamental point – a woman’s path to the top. There is no point just propping women up on stage, making up numbers in boardroom, if that does not trickle down to all levels in workplace or at places of influence.

We are all painfully aware of the numbers

According to the Female FTSE Board Report 2013, Of the FTSE 250 companies, 73% (183 companies) now have women in their boardrooms. The latest data from the Professional Boards Forum’s BoardWatch shows that women made up 20.4% of FTSE 100 directors on January 9, up from 17.4% last May and 12.5% three years ago. However, progress in raising the number of female executive directors remains slow and only four FTSE 100 companies – Royal Mail, easyJet, Imperial Tobacco and Burberry – have women as chief executives. And the appointment of Susan Kilby last week as the new chairman at pharma group Shire doubles the number of female chairs at FTSE 100 companies – from one woman in that position, the number has gone up to two.

But the debate around the equality matrix is being reduced to a numbers game – too simplistic and it is taking us away from understanding the reasons why there is a paucity of women not just at the top but in most other spheres of life. What exactly are we doing about redressing this balance?

Of course we need more women at the top, running businesses, real Birgitte Nyborgs, more women scientists and mathematicians and more women influencers. Wallowing about the fact that there are less of us or simply advocating a quota system – a tactical gesture and hardly a long term solution – is not helpful. Certainly not to women like me or the ones mentioned earlier who are doing what we are doing because of who we are or what we love, not because of our gender.

I am personally a fan of this corporate practice in the West Coast, which insists that at least one female candidate is interviewed for every single role. I also approve of the measures that companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange proposed earlier this year – no quotas, but a disclosure of the number of women on their boards and executive ranks as well as set targets for the future representation of women, along with explaining their corporate policies related to the issue.

Unlike Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg I am not demanding “a truly equal world” with absolute parity, measurable on a spreadsheet. I am advocating practical corporate and societal measures to give all women the freedom to participate fully and visibly, to inspire even greater things in the next generation.

I am asking for more of our stories to be heard, our work to be showcased to inspire and to influence and not just remain a statistic.

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