A page detailing the hard facts on gender confronts visitors to a Saudi academic’s office. It is sellotaped to the door. The page comes from the Global Gender Gap Report the World Economic Forum produces every year to inform the global debate on women. The last time I went home to Pakistan, I had the report quoted back to me by a campaigner for women’s rights who did not know I co-authored it. Information is empowering – it’s a vital tool in the hands of those striving to make change.
This year in Davos, Switzerland, 400 of the world’s most powerful and influential women will gather for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. Co-chaired by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Judith Rodin and including Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, South Korea’s President Park Guen-hye, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg among participants, the impressive list goes on.
But our annual report is labelled the “Gender Gap” for a reason. The world is far from gender parity when it comes to getting women into leadership positions in any area of life, whether we are talking about government, business, civil society or the media.
Fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In the world’s biggest economies, just over double that percentage hold boardroom positions. The world’s political leadership is only marginally more representative, with 17% of ministerial positions held by women. Just 11% of heads of government or state are women.
Reliable global data is hard to come by in other sectors, but US data shows that in the media fewer than 10% of the top managers in newspapers are female. Of the largest NGOs, 12% are woman-led. In education, an outlier, a quarter of university and college presidents are female.
So gender is on the agenda at Davos as a major global challenge. There are six programme sessions specifically focused on gender, and many more touch upon the subject within the context of other topics, such as ageing or education, so that the issue gains wide exposure among participants. This includes a major BBC debate that takes a systemic view of gender parity.
But throughout the year, we are working with governments, businesses, civil society groups and academics to help push forward the gender parity agenda globally. In addition to publishing the world’s leading benchmark for measuring countries’ efforts in empowering women, the World Economic Forum is compiling the latest information on the types of interventions that businesses and governments can make to close the economic gender gap.
This research is then put into practice, through the many groups, governments and businesses that work with us on this topic. In particular, the Forum is working with three countries – Turkey, Mexico and Japan – on task forces, bringing together leading public and private sector actors to develop a locally relevant gender parity strategy to better integrate women into their respective workforces and mobilize action. More country task forces are expected in the coming year.
The World Economic Forum actively encourages its members to include women leaders in their delegations. While “Strategic Partners” – the members sending the biggest delegations – are entitled to come to Davos with four participants each, they have the opportunity to add a fifth delegate if they include at least one female. This is an offer that nearly three-quarters of them take up, with many bringing more than one female representative. Even those whose leadership team make-up means they cannot bring a female participant agree that this is a progressive policy.
We also strive to influence gender balance in the communities designed to integrate the younger generation, such as the Global Shapers community of change-makers (which has a 50-50 split in gender make-up) and the Forum of Young Global Leaders, where the composition now approaches parity.
These and other initiatives have helped increase the proportion of women participants to the Annual Meeting. In addition, we are making sure that we emphasize women’s voices in the discussion; over a fifth of roles in the meeting’s programme are going to women.
Ultimately, gender equality is important for everyone. It is one of the key elements in improving nations’ competitiveness and building stable and prosperous societies. It is good for the Annual Meeting in Davos, good for our constituents and good for the world.
As the World Economic Forum Foundation Board member and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde says, “When women do better, economies do better.”
In the time I have worked with the World Economic Forum, this recognition has gained enormous traction among those present at Davos – both women and men. And that, for me, is the strongest sign of progress. When leaders recognize, irrespective of their own gender, that empowering and integrating women is in everyone’s interest, then change becomes inevitable. Global social change is coming: its progress will not be even, but it is irresistible.
Saadia Zahidi is Senior Director, Head of Gender Parity and Human Capital, at the World Economic Forum. Read more about the World Economic Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme.
Image: Students attend a computer class at the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Indonesia. REUTERS/Beawiharta