Last week, I attended my sixth Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland. I attended many of the sessions in and out of the forum and there was no shortage of women's faces. But appearances can be deceptive. Many women attending did so, not as delegates but as staffers or spouses of the delegates. Sadly this year among the 2,500 delegates, only 16% were female, down from 17% in 2013 - its highest ever. Yet, despite this, there was a real feeling that it was time to get serious about ensuring that 50% of the world's population get their fair share of the world's resources. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook identified a "sense of impatience" about what had and had not been achieved.
The simple explanation for the lack of women delegates is of course that Davos simply reflects the reality of the position of women in the world whether in the economy or in politics. After all, the WEF's own annual Global Gender Gap Report, published in November 2013, found that whilst the gaps in health and education between men and women had narrowed to over 90%, the gender gaps for economic equality and political participation are only 60% and 21% closed. As Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program said, "We're reflecting what is out there in terms of female leadership in government, business and society."
It is true that the 2014 WEF mirrors a systemic problem of a lack of women at the top across all the economies of the world, developed and emerging, but as you might expect for a collection of very smart people, there is a growing impatience amongst the men as well as the women delegates that this imbalance cannot be allowed to continue, both within and outside of Davos.
We have to work with men like Muhtar Kent, CEO of
Or take Google's Nikesh Arora - he is the reason my foundation has a successful online mentoring programme. He helped us partner with Google to get the technology up and running so that we could match hundreds of women entrepreneurs to mentors around the world. We partner with companies like Bank of America, who recruit emerging leaders within their organisation to be mentors. This not only benefits the women entrepreneurs in our programme, but also serves as a staff development and talent retention tool for the bank. The Mentoring Programme is now connecting Google's Women on the Web Programme with mentors, so it is fantastic to see how it has come full circle.
This progress is not just confined to the US. In the UAE, Badr Jafar, CEO of Crescent Enterprises and one of the WEF's Young Global Leaders, is a visionary for women's empowerment in the Middle East. He is working with my foundation to expand our women's business training programmes in the region.
I spoke about some of my foundation's initiatives at a lunch hosted by the 10,000 Women Programme of Goldman Sachs where the topic for discussion was what works in empowering women. I heard Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, talk about the importance of including women in business expansion plans. Marriott is opening a hotel in Rwanda and is taking steps to ensure women will benefit, both in terms of the supply chain and the new job opportunities that the opening will create. And Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank, whilst proudly pointing out that South America now has three women heads of government, explained that investing in women is "fundamental to economic growth in developing countries".
The night before I flew back, I met with Carlos Brito of Anheuser Busch InBev. As CEO of the world's largest brewer, his decisions have the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, and it is refreshing to hear that he believes women are critical to his business operation.
At the EY reception to honour the women at Davos, the delegates applauded Uschi Schreiber, global markets leader at EY when she declared "no more all-male panels!" This is a slogan which should apply across the board not just at Davos but at all truly global conferences. The composition of a panel has an impact on the topics discussed and the views that are represented, and the discussion is diminished if only one gender is heard.
This applies equally to meetings about women for women only. Here we risk creating ghettos for women in business. I'm not saying women supporting women is a negative concept in itself. It is absolutely vital that women have role models and support one another. But this has to be a two-sided conversation. We need to recognise where powerful men are taking action and work together to move the debate forward.
There were six specifically gender-related discussions at Davos, some prominently placed, and the topic came up indirectly in many more sessions both within and outside the conference centre. This is because across the world the really smart people understand that it is unacceptable in the 21st Century to keep women on the outside looking in. For it is only by men and women working together that we will achieve the sustainable growth that the world so desperately needs to secure the future for our children.
Wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, leading lawyer and committed campaigner for women’s rights, Cherie Blair set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2008 to help women build small and growing businesses in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East so that they can contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies. Follow Cherie Blair on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CherieBlairFndn