Here is a summary of an interesting Annual Meeting session on closing the global gender gap. To read summaries of other sessions, go to: www.weforum.org/annualmeeting/summaries2006.

"The normally positive correlation between gender equality and GDP per capita served as a backdrop to the discussion highlighting the importance of education for women and girls in the world today.

Laura D. Tyson, Dean, London Business School, United Kingdom, citing the World Economic Forum’s 2005 Global Gender Gap report, defined countries with gender equality as those striving to give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men. One approach, she said, is to put the gender ratings into a competitiveness context since "half of the potential talent pool is female."There has been considerable research on gender issues, she continued. In the US and Scandinavia, for example, half the advanced degrees in many subjects are earned by women, but the numbers in business are not large. Noting some stark differences between men’s and women’s attitudes, she said that data show women don’t like to negotiate salaries and promotions. "If you understand the gender differences well, you can organize the business or institutional structures to take account of the basic underlying differences,"she suggested.

Lawrence H. Summers, President, Harvard University, USA; Co-Chair of the Annual Meeting 2006, made three main points:
· "In the developing world, there are 100 million women ‘missing’."In industrialized countries there are 105 women for every 100 men; in most of the developing world, there are 90 women for every 100 men.
· The most effective way to improve the situation is by educating girls: "It is a terrific investment,"Summers said. Even leaving aside girls’ productivity, the benefits to the health of young women and their children from education pays off solely in social terms. Educating girls is effective in bringing about positive change in quality of democracy, land policies and curtailing the spread of AIDS.
· In the US today, there are 130 female college graduates each year for every 100 males. The numbers among African-Americans are 200 women college graduates for every 100 men. In addition, honour roles in US high schools have been two-thirds female for a century. The crucial issues in industrial countries have less to do with providing more education than with career choices that families make. In the US, gaps in education are increasing substantially but they are now very much to the advantage of girls.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance of Nigeria, affirmed the importance of education but noted that her country does not even have statistics on the gender gap. Gender equality is not based on economics, she said, but rather on access to finance and knowledge that could make women more productive. She suggested that political will and cultural attitudes must be improved to open up opportunities for women. Cultural issues are not limited to developing countries, she added, pointing out that in Scandinavian countries, women don’t advance in careers in large corporations as men do. "We have to look at it globally: how do we change it, how do we educate the men to make the change on cultural issues, how do we get leaders to step out and be counted?”

Anne Lauvergeon, Chairman of the Executive Board, Areva, France, is in the top leadership of a company of 55,000 people, 80% of whom are men. She said a priority is to ensure that one-third of the employees who are recruited and trained are women. Diversity is valuable to the company because of the difference in the way men and women make decisions and assessments, she said. Opportunity and promotion, however, should not be given on the basis of gender, she added.

Abdullah Abdullah, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, reflected that four and a half years ago women in Afghanistan were imprisoned inside their houses by the Taliban. The peace agreement included assurances of gender equality, because the vulnerability of women was clear, he explained. Today, out of 6 million students, 35% are girls. Millions of women voted in the elections, despite threats by the Taliban, and some have already taken leadership roles in government."