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Women at WEF: An Underrepresented Force

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Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum

Friday, January 25, 2013

The state of the global economy dominated conversation in Davos this week, but women’s participation—not just in politics and economics, but also in the forum itself—was also a talking point. Out of the 2,600 people in attendance at the World Economic Forum (WEF), only an estimated 17 percent are female. While this sparked reflection on women’s overall numbers in the upper echelons of business and politics, the figure is the highest the conference has seen yet.

To address the ongoing issue of a lack of women attending WEF, a female quota (one in five representatives) was set for the biggest 100 companies present this year. Also, a gender parity taskforce was created to run a series of programs, including one dedicated to helping lower Mexico’s gender disparity. The Latin American country’s education gap is all but closed, but women’s labor force participation, especially in positions of leadership, still lags behind.

The panel “Women in Economic Decision-making,”—featuring, among others, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust, the European Commission’s Citizenship Vice President Viviane Reding, and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg—dealt directly with the issue of women’s involvement at the highest levels of economics and business. Talking points included how to increase women graduates in relevant programs, pushing past mid-level career bumps, and exploring how interventions such as quotas can help.

Reding, in particular, is a proponent of legal intervention. In an interview prior to her appearance at Davos, she said, “The proof is in the pudding: regulatory pressure works.” She is pushing a campaign to make women’s quotas on boards and senior leadership positions mandated by law in the European Union. While some EU countries, including Britain, oppose artificial quotas, many European governments, including France, Italy, and Norway, have already given the tactic the go ahead and seen positive results. In spite of that, women still only constitute 15.8 percent of boards in the EU.

Overall, the general conclusion about women’s participation in the economy was summed up by the IMF’s chief during the panel she participated in: “The evidence is clear, as is the message: when women do better, economies do better.” The WEF’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity online page echoed this sentiment, stating: “Women make up a half of potential human capital available in any economy. The efficient use of this talent pool is a key driver of competitiveness.”

Learn more about the empowerment of women in business:

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