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Queen Rania of Jordan (R) with International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president Peter Maurer at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos on January 20, 2016. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

World Economic Forum

Women represent just 18% of Davos attendees, but gender parity is high on the agenda

January 20, 2016

When the world’s most powerful economic, political, and cultural players descend on Davos, Switzerland, this week for the annual World Economic Forum, the breakdown of attendees will reflect a harsh reality for women’s roles in the global economy. Only 18 percent of attendees at the conference will be women, up just one percent from last year and three percent over the last five years.

Organizers of this year’s WEF put that disparity on the official agenda, including a panel session on “The Gender Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” and a debate billed as “Progress towards Parity” during the conference, as well as launching a Global Challenge for Gender Parity in tandem with this year’s conference.

And it has been making an effort in recent years to increase women’s attendance at the event, which was a mere 9 percent in the year 2000, and to shine a spotlight on the gender pay gap. It began releasing annual reports on the global gap in 2005.

This year, the forum ensured that three of the six co-chairs of this year’s forum are women, including General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Tunisian human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui, and Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

Despite their efforts, Davos organizers and participants acknowledged that there needs to be a concerted effort from business and government leaders to increase the number of women succeeding in the workforce around the world.

Saadia Zahidi, head of employment and gender initiatives at the WEF, told Fortune that the forum is making a “concerted effort,” but the Davos attendees are  “a reflection of what is happening externally.”

“As [industry] numbers change, we are improving as well,” she said.

In the forum’s annual report on the global gender pay gap, they noted that while nearly 96 percent of the health gender gap and 93 percent of the education gender gap in educational attainment have been closed globally, only about 60 percent of the economic participation gap and only 21 percent of the political empowerment gap have been closed. It also pointed to a study from September, 2015, which found that $12 trillion of macroeconomic growth could be added to the global GDP if gender parity were achieved in business.

“There is an effort to integrate women [in the event] whenever possible,” Zahidi said.

COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg speaks at the 2015 World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland.                          (REUTERS/Ruben Sprich)
COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg speaks at the 2015 World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. (REUTERS/Ruben Sprich)

The United States will send a powerful contingent of female business and government leaders to participate in the forum, many of whom have pushed for greater inclusion of women in the corporate and political sphere. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and a Davos attendee, recently announced a $31 million donation of company stock to women’s charities and runs Lean In, a project named after Sandberg’s book that encourages women to follow their ambitions in business.

Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, a Harvard Business School grad who previously ran eBay and, in 2010, ran unsuccessfully to become governor of California, will attend, along with Ann-Marie Slaughter, who was the first female director of policy planning at the Department of State under former Secretary Hillary Clinton.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch will be the highest-ranking member from the federal government to attend (President Obama has skipped the event every year he’s been president). Other American attendees include the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of Harvard, Drew Faust, and Nobel prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, and Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Melinda and Bill Gates attend a session at the Congress Center during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 23, 2015 in Davos. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Melinda and Bill Gates attend a session at the Congress Center during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 23, 2015 in Davos. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

“When women are able to fully participate in the workforce, everyone benefits,” Gates told Women in the World. “We know that companies with greater diversity tend to be more successful. And we’ve also seen that when a woman is able to enter the workforce, it changes the way society looks at her, gives her more of a voice in her own life, and better positions her to determine her future. Enlisting leaders from all sectors to ensure that women can reach their full potential as economic actors is the right thing to do from an economic, social, and moral perspective.”

Among the international luminaries participating in the talks will be Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund whom Forbes ranked as the fifth most powerful woman in the world in 2014. The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, the Prime Minister of Norway, Ema Solberg, and Rania Al-Abdullah, the queen consort of Jordan, will also attend.

While the high-profile gathering in Davos happens only once a year and attracts many of the biggest names in business and politics, the WEF has promised to continue working on the gender gap going forward by creating regional task forces, hosting industry-specific workshops, and creating a global board of trustees to help oversee the project. The WEF estimates that the global gender economic gap will close in approximately 118 years, but is hoping to close the gap at its own summit much sooner.

“We want Davos 10 years from now to look very different than it looks today,” Zahidi said.


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