Lack of women still a hot topic at Davos

Some companies — and executives — are waking up to the fact that women can truly shape their corporate trajectories.

It's a strange thing about Davos: Women represented only 18 percent of the actual delegates, but as a topic, women ranked among the top three — right up there with refugees and climate change.

In fact, the topic of gender parity was the third most tweeted, generating a whopping 10,000 tweets.

(From L) International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, British Finance Minister George Osborne, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda shake hands after a session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting on January 23, 2016.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images
(From L) International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, British Finance Minister George Osborne, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda shake hands after a session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting on January 23, 2016.

And among the top quotes:

"You've heard a lot about the Internet of Things; I think we need an Internet of women," said
IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

And from Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent: "We need the three W's: women, water and well-being."

Why were women such a minority? And more importantly, how can we engage women in ways that really drive growth in our organizations, our communities and our economies?

It's a topic I've kept my pulse on closely since my days in Silicon Valley, where I founded and later sold Women's Financial Network.

Fast-forward to Davos, and two things come to mind: First, while women haven't necessarily made huge strides in organizations, as our global When Women Thrive research will reveal on Wednesday (join the launch here), there are companies — and executives — waking up to the fact that women can truly shape their corporate trajectories.

In fact, we kicked off Davos by previewing our global research to be released and a powerful CEO conversation on the very topic: the role of leaders and, in particular, men.

As we'll share on Wednesday, only 57 percent of leaders globally are engaged in diversity efforts. Worse, only 38 percent of men are engaged, down a full 10 percentage points, from 49 percent in 2014. And yet leadership engagement on a personal level is one of the six pillars of a successful gender strategy — one that drives real business impact.

Our event led to more than 400 registrants — close to three times last year's — and, more importantly, shined the klieg lights on some powerful and innovative moves some top CEOs are making, from eBay and Cisco to Marriott and UBS.

What are they doing?

Real Accountability. Jűrg Zeltner, CEO of UBS Wealth Management, was perhaps the most adamant, saying, "There's no more excuses." He doesn't want to go into a boardroom without women. He's directly holding his business managers accountable for more women, saying they'll be fired if he doesn't see greater numbers.

Three years ago, eBay president and CEO Devin Wenig decided to start publishing its pay equity data to help identify gaps — and that's led others to be accountable. "The only thing worse than avoiding the issue is talking about it and not doing anything about it," Wenig said.

Real data. The real strength of any strategy — whether it's business or even gender — comes from having real data to identify what works and what doesn't. Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins put it this way: "If we review sales numbers, let's also review the people numbers."

He's invested $2 million-plus specifically on building a data and analytic framework to focus on pay parity. It's a great example of one of the other pillars of a successful gender strategy: proof.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Rethinking programs. Hanzade Dogan Boyner, a leading figure in Turkey's online and digital world, asked at our panel: "Why do women give up at some point? Because it's very difficult to rise to the CEO level and raise two kids. So we need to change the culture."

There's a lot of talk about flexible leave and returnship programs, to name just a few, and their importance to women. But there are a host of issues — including the lack of engagement and training of middle managers on how to have conversations with their female workforce — that are impacting the ultimate goal of greater representation throughout all career levels.

Wenig of eBay surprised the group by talking about other life events demanding programs to keep women engaged in the workforce — like elder care — sorely needed by women as they juggle kids and aging parents and their job in the middle. That, he said, is worthy of at least the same attention we pay to maternity/paternity leave programs.

I would have liked to see more women — business women — in Davos. Their unique skills — like flexibility and inclusive team management — are more important than ever in today's complex world.

"Men have a unique opportunity in this, as we still make up 80 percent of the executive ranks and even more than that at the CEO level," said Julio A. Portalatin, Mercer president and CEO. "We have a unique obligation to be out in front on growing women in the workforce. It's not a women's issue. This is a workforce issue."

— By Jennifer Openshaw, partner, Mercer's When Women Thrive research platform. Openshaw is a financial expert, author and commentator. She founded and later sold Women's Financial Network.