30 Jan 2013 Back

Women in Economic Decision-Making

EVENT NEWS: The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual meeting in Davos came to an end on 27 January. As always, pressing global concerns such as international conflicts, environmental issues, financial crises and so on dominated the 5-day event. But this year, particular efforts were made to raise the profile on gender issues linked to global economic competitiveness. In one of the plenary sessions, INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra chaired a discussion on women in economic decision-making. Citing statistics of female representation in boards and in C-Suites, Ibarra stressed that the bad news is not in those numbers; rather it is in the pace of progress, which has only really been at the lower levels of organizations. On the other hand, in mid-to-top levels, it remains rather stalled. “People have started to ask, ‘why so slow? How can we get progress on these numbers? What’s stuck?"

Panellists at the session included Drew Gilpin Faust (President of Harvard University), Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook) and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director at the International Monetary Fund [IMF]). Lagarde in particular spoke of her personal experiences of gender discrimination, adding that that women generally get the job when it is “a lost cause” and then they  turn it around. “When women do better,” said Lagarde, “economies do better.”

The event was also the first where Facebook’s Sandberg spoke about gender issues in the workplace, arguing that women are held back at work by stereotypes that firms are unwilling to talk about. “Organizations need to address the institutional barriers we all know about… in addition to that, much more open dialogue about gender [is required], because we are all judged, determined and held back by very gender-determined stereotypes.”

The sole male panellist was the CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, Kevin Kelly, who stressed that gender diversity is not about adding one or two females to the board; it is about increasing the overall quality of the board. He also highlighted the role of the board itself in gender diversity, suggesting that even if “the magic wand” was waved to make more female representation mandatory, there is not enough board turnover for significant change at a global level. As such, his advice was to adhere to term limits so as to “move the dial at a much faster pace.”

In response to Kelly, Ibarra summarized that “better governance will lead to greater diversity on boards, and… it goes the other way around as well: more diversity leads to better governance.” Ibarra herself has been involved in a lot of research on gender issues, including Taking Gender into Account: Theory and Design for Women's Leadership Development Programs, and Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women.

Other sessions on women’s issues at Davos included a discussion on women's rights in Pakistan by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Academy Award winner for Best Short Documentary, and an interactive panel discussion on how women and girls can be empowered to catalyse progress on core development goals.

Further Information:

View the discussion at

World Economic Forum page on the event

Previous Blogs on Women Leaders:

Board Ready Women -

Breaking Barriers for Women -

Glass Cliff -

Women Leaders have what it takes -

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