Switzerland: Davos Woman, Lost In The Crowd


Davos Man is a company executive or policy-maker, dressed in a smart suit and stout boots to cope with the snow lying impacted on the pavements of the Swiss mountain resort that hosts the yearly great international debate, entitled the World Economic Forum (WEF). Although chastened by global recession, he is still self-important, financially well off and a bit of a show off.

Davos Woman is a much rarer breed and harder to define. The journalists and cartoonists found it easy to make fun of Davos Man, as he participated in intense discussion that rounded off January and spilled into February. But, they were at a loss to satirise the handful of women, who have made it to the top of their careers as well as of the scenic railway that transports forum-goers up the mountain. Their numbers have crept higher over the years, but these elegantly-dressed and perfectly made-up super-women remained a comparative whisper in the deliberations on “Shaping the Post-Crisis World”, drowned out by the men, who arguably shaped the crisis in the first place.

Even events put on to promote women had a tendency to be male-dominated. A cocktail in the plush ArabellaSheraton Hotel Seehof to highlight the World’s Most Powerful Women was noteworthy in that the male hosts, rather than the supposedly powerful women, did the talking. Such female luminaries as Beijing property developer Zhang Xin; Ellen Kullman, CEO of U.S. chemicals giant DuPont; and Patricia Woertz, head of U.S. agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels, stood mute on the stage, while Steve Forbes, president and CEO of business magazine ‘Forbes’, lauded the very practical contribution women can make. “It’s not just something that’s nice to do. It’s something that’s right to do both morally and economically,” said the father of five daughters with reference to the advancement of women.

‘Forbes’, which hosted the cocktail party together with professional services firm Ernst & Young, draws up a list of the World’s Most Powerful Women each year. The latest, published in August last year, is topped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke at the WEF, but was not sighted at the Seehof soiree. Other high-flyers in attendance included Beth Brooke, Global Vice Chair of Ernst & Young. She greeted the mostly male guests very cordially as they arrived, then was taciturn on the podium. As she shook my hand on arrival, I told her that after a week of speaking to important men, I’d come to talk to important women.

“You’ve come to the right place,” she said. That was debatable. It was the men who were chattiest over the champagne and canapes, as well as forthcoming in giving speeches.

There are, of course, strong arguments for saying little and just getting on with the job and WEF’s women’s champions were resolutely upbeat. Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF’s Women Leaders’ Programme – whose stated aim is to promote women’s leadership and close gender gaps – said more than 360 women leaders had taken part in the 2009 forum – or around 15 per cent. That compares well with the nine per cent in 2001, but is lower than the record 17 per cent of overall participation at the 2008 WEF.

If the percentages are still very low, they are regarded as progress. “The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting has … gone beyond world averages of women represented in leadership,” Zahidi said. As evidence, she cited the only 12 Fortune Global 500 companies that have women CEOs – which equates to 2.4 per cent. Fortune magazine’s annual list of 1,000 top companies measured by revenue includes only 24 led by women (again 2.4 per cent). Zahidi added that in the world, there were a mere 11 elected women heads of government and overall 15 per cent of government ministers were women.

While few women are ministers, many more are elected to parliament. Figures from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that in Switzerland 28.5 per cent of the lower house were women and 21.7 per cent of the upper house. In global terms, that is relatively low and Switzerland ranks 26th in the IPU’s table of women representation. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering Swiss women only got the right to vote in federal elections and be represented in parliament as recently as February 1971 and working mothers I spoke to told me they were frowned upon in Switzerland for seeking to combine motherhood with a career.

Change is afoot, but gradually. In January, the nation achieved a female first by appointing Livia Leu Agosti as ambassador to Tehran. It is believed she is the first woman to be an ambassador to Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Switzerland’s business capital Zurich is also poised to elect its first woman mayor in a contest in which both candidates are women. In an initial election on February 8, however, neither achieved an outright majority and therefore face a run-off on March 29.