Whether walking with the world’s leaders in US Congressional corridors, along Davos’ icy streets or Oxford’s cobblestoned paths, there has been one constant: I have been one of a handful of women in a crowd of men. Sometimes I have been the only woman in the room. So it is quite a strange sensation to look at my new Young Global Leader community and see that a remarkable 41% of my cohort – 78 of the 192 leaders —are now female.

How unique. And how good for the world.

Given the severity of challenges confronting our global society, we can no longer afford to leave half our brains, half our resources, on the sidelines. To use a sailing analogy, we need all hands on deck.

As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, we can and should celebrate some dramatic progress: women are healthier and more educated than ever before. But as detailed in the World Economic Forum’s recent Gender Parity Report, all that healthy, smart ‘manpower’ is not being deployed — economically or politically. Women are half of the global population…but hold less than one fifth of positions in national governments, a meager 9.4% of board directorships and only 20% of senior management positions globally. According to Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, U.S. Department of State, the political and economic realities are intertwined—progress (or lack thereof) in one dimension reinforces progress in the other.

This is to society’s detriment. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has emphasized that the empowerment of women is smart economics: studies reveal that investments in women yield substantial social and economic returns. These global studies and indices make the economic and societal case for parity while McKinsey studies and others document the business case of improved corporate performance. But the common sense argument is just as important: when we have diversity of thought, diversity of leadership styles, we – all of us – are better governed and have more sustainable growth. Those lovely twin goals of peace and prosperity that humanity is striving for are much more achievable when all our talent is contributing.

We also need to abandon remnants of imperialist mindsets. Simply put, leaders need to represent those they are leading. As Ambassador Verveer highlights, “[Women] are significantly outnumbered in the chambers of parliaments, provincial councils, and more often than not missing from the negotiating tables where conflicts are to be resolved. All too often decisions that affect women, their families, and societies are made without women having a voice”.

Fixing this global handicap will not happen by accident – policy changes by businesses and governments are necessary for change. Without fail, every time I engage in discussions on how to fix such tremendous inequality, some argue that affirmative action promoting women will completely erode meritocracy, advancing the unqualified over the qualified. For that to be true, there would have to be a dearth of capable, qualified women leaders in the world. I know that to be fundamentally false – as clearly does the World Economic Forum. Access to leadership roles is not my entitlement as a woman. It is my responsibility as a global citizen to show up, to have a voice, to contribute my time and talents in service to society.

Looking through the lens of the Forum where 41% of the next generation of Young Global Leaders are women, I can glimpse a future walking around Congress, Davos, Oxford among a sea change of faces – men and women reflecting our beautifully diverse world. The Forum is to be applauded for being the change they wish to see in the world. Let us hope—for all our sakes—that it heralds a world with true diversity of thought where leaders reflect and represent all of humanity.

Pictured: Thailand’s Prime Minister-elect Yingluck Shinawatra meets with her economic team at the Puea Thai Party’s headquarters in Bangkok July 6, 2011. Yingluck held a strategy meeting on Wednesday to review urgent action to revitalise the economy, but business leaders fear her populist wage policies will spark a surge in inflation. Yingluck won a landslide election victory on Sunday, backed by votes from the poor lured by promises such as wage rises, a household debt moratorium and better welfare and healthcare. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang.

Valerie Keller is founder and CEO of Veritas and Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. She was selected as a 2012 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.