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January 22, 2016updated 31 Aug 2016 9:42am

How to solve Davos’ diversity deficit

Analysis: Diversity is the problem at the top of firms, but how can it be fixed?

By Charlotte Henry

It is fair to say that the World Economic Forum in Davos is hardly the most representative event on the calendar, in terms of gender, race, disability or many other facets.

Of course in some ways it is not meant to be that representative. It is where the global business and elite come together to ink multi-million deals, and rub shoulders with top politicians. It is the peak of the business world’s greasy pole.

However, that does not mean it should not be diverse. Indeed, the importance of the conversations that can happen on the Swiss slopes actually means it is all the more vital that firms send representatives from a wide range of backgrounds to the event, in order to offer different insights.

Dianah Worman, Diversity Adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said that diversity throughout organisations is critical so that they are "not missing out on the brainpower, the knowledge, the experience because both their views and their perspective are going to help you identify that you’re actually really dealing with in a better way than just having the same kind of thinking on the issue from people who have always been doing it with similar backgrounds."

Or, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put it on a panel at this year’s event: "Men still run the world, I’m sure it’s going that well."

The problem is particularly acute in Sandberg’s world of technology and IT. There are 8m European IT jobs, but only one in five are held by women, and only 4% of engineering apprenticeships in the UK are taken up by females.

"When you put people together from mixed backgrounds, mixed views, mixed perspectives, mixed "cognitive ability you will get richer debate, richer discussion," said Worman, which is critical in a debating forum like Davos.

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UNWomen Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has had her say on the issue in Davos too. "We need all-country leadership…to bring an end to the persisting inequalities faced by women and girls globally," she said.

The Harry Potter star was appearing on a powerful panel, which included UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven who said that "Shutting women out of economic opportunities is probably biggest waste in the world."

The reality is that just 18% of the delegates in Davos this year are women. This is despite the fact that diversity at the conference is generally considered to be improving, and in 2011 the World Economic Forum brought in a quota in a bid to improve diversity. The event’s strategic partners, which included some of the biggest firms in the world, were told that one in every five senior executives they sent must be female.

It seems then that most people get what the problem is, but what can we do about it? How can Davos, a microcosm of the top of the business world, tap into the full range of talent?

Worman, and parlaympian and KPMG consultant Claire Harvey both agree change is going to take some time. "There’s no quick fix," says Harvey.

"It’s the operational people who are recognising the importance of that are going to really drive it," says Worman. "They’re going to really get it and they’re going to make it business as usual about the way they do their jobs." "We need businesses to be in listening mode to really aim to get the message, not just follow the rhetoric ad be cosmetic," she says, adding that firms need to realise why they need take the issue of diversity seriously.

Of course, a key issue is that diversity itself is such a broad brush term.

Women themselves are obviously a diverse range. Worman says that "it’s about looking for the commonalities at a ground level."

"You really need to be able to cut and slice things in a way that doesn’t leave out people who don’t quite fit the bill of wanting everything exactly the same because none of us do," she said.

Harvey says that "You have to focus on proportionality, which is why it takes time . You look at the talent pool you would be drawing from, when you’re looking at a board position you look at the immediate talent pool below it and not who you think might be ready, but the actual demographic of that group, so you say ok 20% of those are women, then I want to shortlist 20% women.

"Proportionality forces you to at least consider other people."

The issue of diversity clearly emerges long before people get to Davos. "Actually, for most diverse groups, middle management is when they start to fall out", said the paralympian.

Companies need to have diversity at the top levels, so everyone feels that they can aspire to achieve within an organisation. Harvey said that what happens is people from diverse groups "ok up and they don’t see role models, they don’ see people like them, so you automatically start to disengage yourself and start to knock yourself out of something. The messages you’re getting subliminally is I couldn’t belong there."

It’s clear that people, particularly when appointing for more senior levels tend to go for people that fit and who they trust, instead of merely focussing on how capable candidates are, she said.

"There’s no magic bullet at this" warns Worman.

Harvey says to make progress in improving diversity organisations have to "make it important".

"You have to make it something measurable, and you have to make it something that’s priority at every stage," she said. That is a principle Worman agrees with too. "The pivotal thing is to recognise there is an issue," she said.

WEF Jobs report

Harvey also feels that diversity is one area in which the private sector can learn from the public sector, as regular impact assessments in the public sector have helped improve diversity.

On a really practical level, Harvey said that even assessing the candidates from diverse backgrounds before others can help, so that they are front of mind, instead of thought of at the end of the process.

This is significant as the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report found that 44% of respondents cite unconscious bias among managers as the reason for lack of gender parity. This could clearly apply to other diverse groups too.

Davos has a long way to go though. There have been a few discussions this year, around its theme of theme of the fourth industrial revolution. For example, there was a briefing entitled "The Gender Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution", another on "Diversity Barriers in Emerging Markets" while Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will discuss "Progress towards Parity ".

It is clearly positive these discussions are being had, but they feel like something of an add on, which is what both Harvey and Womran warn against.

If Davos represents the business leadership of the world, it shows very clearly that the leadership is severely lacking in the diversity stakes.

With some practical steps, this can be changed though, and maybe one day soon at the World Economic Forum a much wider collection of leaders will grace the slopes of Davos.

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