Recently in an interview with the BBC's Peter Day, I was asked about the future and replied that I expected gender parity within the next decade. Peter simply looked at me and said "But that's what you said when I interviewed you 20 years ago and it still has not happened." Of course he is right and at Davos this week I expect that, as in past years, there will be only a small proportion of women. I'm publically optimistic, but privately pessimistic about achieving a gender balance in the next couple of decades.
There are four key reasons why Davos 2024 will probably look exactly like Davos 2014. Firstly, while societal norms move fast (think about the speed with which attitudes to gay marriage or divorce have changed), corporate practices change at a glacial pace. For example, the way corporations select, promote, appraise people has hardly changed in the last 20 years. Since many of these practices were designed for people who had child care at home (ie a wife), who worked in an office (rather than at home), and who could work standard hours (rather than flexibly) they have proven to be barriers to anyone (often women) who want to work in a different way. And moreover, these are barriers that appear to be resolutely impervious to changing circumstances.
It takes a wise and courageous CEO to actively promote women into business orientated senior executive roles. Some of course do but many do not. Without this push it's almost impossible to achieve gender parity. Research has shown that more often CEOs promote one woman to the senior team and then stand back and think the job is done. Or alternatively they support a women's network, a process that we know makes little difference to promotion prospects. We need CEOs who realise these token efforts aren't enough before we will see any big change.
Like many, I believe that gender parity will only be achieved when men are willing to take as much responsibility for raising a family as women do. Of course there are families where there is already a balance, but this is not the norm. Current working practices implicitly assume that the worker is supported by someone who can stand in for them with regard to family responsibilities, this needs to be true at home.
Finally, and most depressingly, the simple truth is that there are jobs that lead to the top – jobs that require significant management of large numbers of people, jobs that have a heavy dose of finance, jobs that involve working in multiple locations. These are typically not the jobs that women apply for, or are selected into. As a consequence many women are already out of the promotion ladder within a decade of joining the workforce. I hope I am proved wrong. How marvellous it would be to see equal numbers of men and women at Davos in 2024 but I'm not holding my breath.