Re-thinking our think tanks

Women an untapped resource for our male dominated think tanks

The World Economic Forum, one of the world’s most recognised think tanks, issued a report indicating long-term talent management issues were actually being concealed by high levels of unemployment. “In today’s global and fast-changing business environment, access to highly skilled people – not just top talent, but also people who possess essential expertise – is crucial to succeed and grow,”

Hans-Paul Bürkner, Global Chief Executive Officer and President of The Boston Consulting Group, Germany commented. “Some industries, such as business services, IT and construction, are likely to experience significant skills gaps, regardless of geography. At the same time, certain countries, such as Japan, Russia and Germany, will face shortages of highly skilled employees in many industries.”

Is this the best our brightest think tanks can come up with?

Geographic mobility

The report calls for increased geographic mobility among countries as part of the solution. Anyone involved in executive search or recruitment will be familiar with the complex issues involved in enticing potential candidates to be internationally, regionally or even locally mobile. There are many factors in the frame: cultural issues, language and education system considerations, commuting times, childcare support and custody matters, dual career families – to name but a few.

However, the report suggests that the talent crisis will start much sooner than anticipated. With an aging population of hitherto unrecorded levels, the 60 + demographic is projected to exceed the under 15 demographic. For the first time ever in history by 2050. It is anticipated that in order to sustain the economic growth of the past 20 years, the United States, for example, will need to add 26 million workers to its talent pool by 2030.

Most developing countries can expect large skill deficits in a range of categories. The report calls for a number of eminently sensible strategic measures to extend the talent pool by developing the skills of migrant workers, tapping into 2nd and 3rd tier universities and encouraging companies to extend the reach and creativity of their recruitment practises.

So far so thoughtful.

A gem

Imagine my surprise therefore when this little gem drifted onto my screen a few weeks ago. Another think tank report from The World Economic Forum report on 5th January 2011, Global Talent Risk analysing projected talent shortages in 25 countries, 13 industries and 9 occupational clusters between 2020 -2030. If you peer hard and long enough, one of the reports suggestions, last at number 7 is:

Extend the pool by tapping women, older professionals, the disadvantaged and immigrants

So despite the fact that women comprise a significant global economic demographic, they are for some reason grouped with other seemingly marginalised categories. Is this the best our brightest can do? Fewer than a fifth of leaders present last year at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2010 were women. This year efforts are being made to increase the number of women representatives at the 2011 conference, by insisting on attendance quotas for women.

This is possibly designed to revamp the Forum’s alpha male image. But will that be enough? It wasn’t. In 2020 of 2,820 total participants, only 682 were women. That is 25%. An increase of 5%


Women represent 60% of today’s graduates and therefore a major segment of a top talent pool. I am always astounded why our leaders seem so resistant to reviewing our current talent management strategies to maximise their contribution to the workplace, to the point where governments are talking about a need to impose quotas. It has to make economic sense to maximise the potential of our workforces.

Yet this significant qualified and skilled demographic, is lumped together with the “disadvantaged and immigrants” ( whoever you are, I’m sure you are very nice indeed and no offence intended at all) by some of the supposedly leading intellects and the brightest and most creative brains in our global economies. It’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves in this situation.

In between time many geographies have tightened their immigration and visa requirements specifically U.K. and U.S. making international mobility challenging.

So perhaps before we start uprooting and whizzing people around the globe to fill these gaps, one approach might be to ask how can we tap into the talent we have on our doorsteps? What do organisations need to do to maximise the potential of this key sector of the talent pool sitting there in the wings?

Now is the time to reinvent, rather than react. Perhaps we also need to re-think our think thanks.

If your organisation wants to achieve gender balance get in touch now. 

Note: written in 2011 and updated in 2021.

15 thoughts on “Re-thinking our think tanks

  1. Wendy Mason

    Hi Dorothy

    Great, thought provoking piece as usual!

    Dare I suggest we are actually making progress that this particular group recognised that women, older professionals, the disadvantaged and immigrants might have a role to play! For many significant parts of the world, including parts of Europe, women are regarded as home makers and little else – not that in home making women are not providing key support to the economy! For many women there is no choice and for me choice is all! I’d be interested to know how this worthy group has followed up and what initiatives are being carried forward as a result. I know Davos is a think tank/talking shop but I believe strands of work do follow and I wonder what if anything emerged from this?

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy for stopping by! I think you’re being very kind and giving our think tanks the benefit of the doubt ! Perhaps you’re right! Acknowledging that women are at least part of the way forward, is perhaps a step in the right direction – better than not acknowledging them at all for sure. But what economies need from organisations is creative thinking in terms of making sure this key and qualified demographic maximises its potential in the workplace.

  2. creativepotager

    Dorothy in the spring of 2009 I did a conference workshop on this very subject for Human Resource professionals. After nine years I closed my coaching business at the end of December 2010. However the 13 myths and 7 strategies for increasing women in leadership is still available in a post called “Untapped ROI: Increasing Women in Leadership” at You may find some of these ideas and research useful in your discussion.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Terill – thanks for your comment and excellent post reference. Many of those comments are still valid today. Perhaps the only change is that during the recession companies with female CEOs did score well and those with higher levels of women on their boards indicated greater return to investors. My point is that in addition to encouraging global mobility organisations could do well to factor in the resources that are on their doorsteps.

  3. Robyn McMaster

    Interesting how we still face the uphill climb. Thanks for such a thoughtful overview of where we are based on the World Economic Forum report.

    One bright note is that when H-P selected four new directors to it’s board, they named three outstanding women, including Meg Whitman, and one man to its board. Happily, numbers of women directors on corporate boards are increasing. “36 of the top 200 international corporate boards include three women or more,” Susan Stautberg, co-founder and co-chair of Women Corporate Directors, states. For “MetLife, P&G, Nokia and HSBC, ‘It’s the new normal,’” she concludes.

  4. curt rice

    Great piece, thank you! Your comments on women in the workforce combined with thinking about think tanks, is very familiar to me as one who works on related issues in university settings. Two recent entries I had on this topic are:
    Why hire (wo)men?:
    A slow thaw for women:
    I think they reinforce some of your arguments. The think tank and university sectors are long overdue for structural improvement!

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