THIS year’s World Economic Forum has thrown down a gauntlet to its delegates. The organisers have asked that women make up at least 20 per cent of any corporate team attending debates in Davos.

Quotas have always been controversial. As a member of the steering group of Lord Davies’ enquiry into women on boards, I’m all too aware of the debate raging on this issue. For some, quotas are the only way forward and for others, they are a rigid answer to a complex issue, and can be seen to drive a perception of tokenism. Ultimately, boards should not be anything other than meritocratic.

The business case for improved gender diversity is clear. Companies with more women on their boards have been found to outperform their rivals with a 42 per cent higher return in sales, 66 per cent higher return on invested capital and 53 per cent higher return on equity. A better balance in leadership also provides a wider talent pool and increased market responsiveness, and brings broader, more rounded perspectives, leadership and decision-making to boards.

Addressing the gender balance is clearly a complex issue. Transparent recruitment, business culture, stereotyping, women’s aspirations and family responsibilities are just some of the barriers to achieving greater balance. But there are solutions. Small, simple practical steps can be made to help women balance career and family demands.

There is a case to be made for encouraging organisations to adopt targets for female leadership, using voluntary corporate governance codes. However, ultimately it is attitudes around women, their sponsorship, confidence, ambition, experience, and of course talent that will make a sustainable difference in the long term. Those recruiting need to be open to it, those seeking a board appointment need to be alive to it and role models need to be encouraging it.

Davos tweets ...

@jacobwe 6.58pm
In #Davos, people who don’t know you assume you are more important than you are. This makes you more feel important. Pompous Circle.

@andrewrsorkin 6.26pm
Another great line from #wef in #davos: “China is a well run company masquerading as a country” - a US CEO.

Sarkozy magnificently clear on the euro. “It is to do with our identity as europeans.” #davos #wef.

@tim_weber 8.29am
Why this year’s #davos feels different: 1. there is no BIG issue dominating the agenda; 2. there's no scapegoat (e.g. banks, hedge funds)