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Learning from Davos: Diversity Matters

Every winter, 2,500 very smart people gather in Davos, Switzerland to think deep thoughts with others invited by the World Economic Forum. Last year, only 17% of them were women. That wasn't good enough for an organization that routinely calls for more women in leadership in business, politics, and non-profit organizations. Apparently, Saadia Zahidi, Head of Constituents who oversees production of annual gender parity reports for the Forum, had had enough. This year, she laid down the law: strategic partners have to include at least 20% women in their delegations.
Predictably, a groan of annoyance was heard 'round the world. It's amusing to imagine the flurry of last-minute invitations that went out at the end of December to women who'd been mysteriously overlooked.

The business case for having plenty of women in leadership is well documented. Your own employer probably shares these high-minded goals. But like the now-chastised members of the Forum, your employer may face a breakdown between philosophy and reality. When your company's publicly stated commitment to diversity is contradicted by the makeup of the groups that represent it, you are headed for a Davos-style showdown. Here's how to avoid that.

Mirror the group's priorities. If your employer is part of the group, it should get with the group's program. None of the Davos sponsors were surprised that the Forum practices what it preaches. The Forum has an official program to increase the proportion of women at all its events. And, two of the six Davos co-chairs are women. Yet, many of the sponsors were gender-blind when assembling their own platoons of representatives.

Is your employer sending all-male or all-white teams to pitch clients? To recruit graduates? To staff trade show booths? To represent your company on association boards? Look at the makeup of those audiences. 100% male? 100% white? Then you're fine. Not so? Maybe you need to think about some quotas to shake things up.

Follow the leaders. Some of the most prominent Forum supporters are companies with stellar records at advancing women. Manpower, the staffing company, is all over the Forum website, and Manpower (despite its name) has four women on its senior management committee of 13 - a respectable 31%.

Take a clue from industry leaders that are involved in the same associations, panels and other public events as your employer. Do they only send men to speak on, say, panel discussions at industry events? Likely not.

This one is easy to research. Just look over the agendas for past and upcoming conferences and tally the mix of men and women who represent progressive companies in your industry. This will give you an informal benchmark when you review the composition of the group your company plans to send. And, you can ask your bosses if they really want to look less progressive than some of their big competitors.

Measure the key metric and act on it. Clearly, Saadia Zahidi had her eye on the participation of women at Davos -- and probably not just because she was jostling with khaki-clad crowds to get to the bar. She had numbers, not gut instinct, to back up her quota requirement.

How does your industry measure the gender and racial makeup of participants and presenters at industry events? You might be surprised to find that association staff are working behind the scenes to address gender or racial inequities. If they are looking for qualified women and minorities to balance panels and podiums, you have a golden opportunity to nominate an up-and-coming leader in your company - solving two problems at once and advancing your own career in the process.

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor clarita.

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