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At Davos, Sheryl Sandberg’s silence on politics and quotas says it all

In a highly-anticipated session on “Gender-driven Growth” at the World Economic Forum, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg seemed to rule out a run for political office, while the IMF’s Christine Lagarde said that quotas were needed to ensure that women get to the top.

This discussion took place Saturday, on the last day of the annual meeting in the tony ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, where more than 2,500 of the world’s leaders in economics, politics, business and media gathered for five days of meetings, social events and skiing.

After agreeing that the persistent gender gap is due to “a lot” of discrimination, BBC News correspondent and moderator Linda Yueh wanted to know how best to close this gap. Should companies be held to a quota?

Lagarde, a lawyer and the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, said that she used to be totally opposed to gender quotas, finding them offensive. Now, she’s completely changed her mind and is “pro gender quotas,” arguing that “we need targets.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the undersecretary-general and executive director of UN Women, agreed. “We may not like them,” she acknowledged, “but for now, unfortunately, we need them.” In defending her support of quotas, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that “there’s an assumption that men are there because they’re good.”

Carlos Ghosn, chairman and chief executive officer of Renault-Nissan and the only male on the panel, said that Nissan had to go to quotas in Japan to get around the “obvious discrimination.” Although training and coaching women are the most important steps for a company to take, he said that quotas “are important because they lead to action.”

(Although the panelists didn’t mention it, the World Economic Forum, itself, established a quota for women two years ago. Despite this, however, women make up a lower percentage of attendees now than before the quota was introduced.)

While the other panelists seemed to be effusive in their praise of quotas, Sandberg remained almost uncomfortably silent. And, Yueh didn’t push her.

Comments Sandberg’s made over the years, however, show that she’s firmly opposed to using quotas as a way to get women to the top. For example, in response to a question during an NPR interview about whether she felt that she’d been “chosen” as one of the few women talented enough to reach the top, Sandberg said: “It used to be the case, that … there was only room for one or two. Women would look at each other in a room and know that because they were tokens only one of them was getting promoted. … And they were competitive with each other, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.”

In her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” written with Nell Scovell, Sandberg recounts her anger at being asked whether “it must have helped to be a woman” when Larry Summers, who had been her adviser at Harvard, made her his chief of staff at the Treasury Department in 1999. “It was infuriating,” Sandberg writes. “Their intent may not have been malicious, but the implication was clear. I had not gotten the job on merit.” If the Treasury Department had had an affirmative action program, which it didn’t, Sandberg might have been on shakier ground in defending her promotion.

In other words, a quota system risks labeling a woman as a “token” board member, senior executive, or whatever, rather than allowing the woman to be seen as achieving the position on merit.

Though she doesn’t support quotas, Sandberg recognizes that women face many overt and covert barriers to getting ahead and cites numerous studies showing that whenever gender is taken out of the issue women do much better. Orchestras that hold blind auditions hire more women; identical resumes with a man’s name are viewed more favorably than those with a woman’s name; students evaluated a Harvard business school case study with Heidi as the entrepreneur much more harshly than when Howard was the entrepreneur; both males and females evaluating job applicants give higher marks to the male applicant, and so on.

As Sandberg said in Davos, “If we take gender out, every time women do better.”

The session also addressed women and politics. After acknowledging the presence of her good friend Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in the audience, Sandberg referred to reports that with 20 members out of 100, women are taking over the Senate. “It’s not a takeover, it’s a problem!” she joked.

Lagarde, who is a former French finance minister, lamented that “There aren’t enough women in politics. And, when there are, they do better.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka, who had said earlier that the world would be at peace and we’d have better security if more women were in charge, said “it’s important for women to elect women.”

At that point, all eyes turned to Sandberg, where there’s been speculation that a run for political office is her inevitable next step.

The BBC News moderator asked Sandberg straight out: “Is politics for you?”

“Not for me,” Sandberg replied. “I just have a wholesale agreement that we need more women in politics.”