Fewer women run big companies than men named John. Women hold only around a fifth of seats in national parliaments around the world, and the gender gap at work won’t close for another 81 years.

It’s tough to be optimistic ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day on Sunday. But change is happening, and not just in the conventional corridors of power. In fact, the nature of power in itself is changing, becoming less top-down, less institutional and less predictable.

While everyone is familiar with the female leaders who generate headlines at Davos – inspiring women like Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg – you might be less aware of the other exceptional women involved with the World Economic Forum’s work. From an astronaut to an executive campaigning for gay rights at work, from scientists to social entrepreneurs, these women are challenging what is expected of their gender and changing the world around them for the better.

Below, they share their thoughts on the theme of this year’s Women’s Day, how to turn equality into a reality – #makeithappen.

Muna AbuSulayman, TV anchor, Co-founder of Meedan.com

Muna AbuSulayman

Saudi Arabia’s Muna AbuSulayman is best known for founding and co-hosting Kalam Nawaem, one of the Arab world’s most popular TV shows. A one-hour show hosted exclusively by women, Kalam Nawaem is credited with pushing social boundaries on Arab television, discussing controversial topics such as homosexuality, gender equality, sexual harassment and divorce. AbuSulayman’s activities are not limited to the TV screen. In 2007, she was appointed the first Saudi UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. Currently head of directions and a partner in Glowork – a website for Saudi women to find employment – she is a committed advocate for gender equality. She has also championed projects and fundraising for refugees.

A lot has been accomplished to close the gap in gender inequality, a lot of research has been carried out to look at how stereotypes still operate on an almost subconscious level‎. Yet women still lag behind in income parity, opportunities for promotion and the ability to tap into government resources to balance home and work duties. I look forward to the day when all those issues are no longer topics of conversation, seminars and studies.

Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice-Chair of Public Policy at EY

Beth Brooke-MarciniakBeth Brooke-Marciniak climbed the corporate ladder while aware of being “different”, as a woman, an introvert and as someone who kept her sexual orientation hidden. After coming out in 2011, EY’s global vice-chair for public policy says she has become a better leader. Over the past four years, she has increasingly used her position to raise awareness of LGBT issues in business. This year she spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos about diversity and gay rights, and she chairs the executive panel to unify EY’s LGBT networks globally. Last year, Brooke-Marciniak was among OUTstanding’s top 100 LGBT leaders, and Forbes has named her among its “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” seven times.

In a recent EY survey, men identified unconscious bias as the number one barrier to women’s advancement. That’s a great starting point. If men know it’s a problem, we can all start to deal with it. We need men and women working together to eradicate workplace bias, creating flexibility in the workplace for men and women so both can share the burdens of home, providing clear opportunities for women to advance and sponsoring them to do so. The evidence is clear that promoting women produces higher GDP, improves productivity and business outcomes. So now, it’s about taking action. I, for one, won’t wait. Neither should you.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International

Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International speaks during the session 'The BBC World Debate: A Richer World, but for Whom?' in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos

Winnie Byanyima was 18 when she arrived in Britain, having fled Idi Amin’s regime. She trained as an aeronautical engineer there and returned to Uganda after the fall of Amin. Democratic elections were hijacked, however, which led her to join a new struggle for liberation under the leadership of the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. She served 11 years in the Ugandan parliament, championing groundbreaking gender equality laws and multi-party democracy. She has served as director of gender and development at the African Union Commission and the United Nations Development Program. She co-founded the 60-member Global Gender and Climate Alliance and chaired UN task forces on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals, and climate change. Now head of Oxfam International, she is a recognized leader on women’s rights, democratic governance and peace-building, and has played a major role in putting inequality on the world agenda.

The untapped potential of women across the world in every walk of life is a priority that requires our urgent attention. The fact is, women still bear the biggest burden of poverty and most people living in poverty are women. We know why and how excluding women impacts societies and economies, and much is being done, by Oxfam and others, to advance women’s well-being and expand their roles as political, economic, family and social leaders. But to make gender equality happen, a concerted focus on legal reform and ending violence against women is needed, and though this is happening, more needs to be done and quickly for the benefit of all; women and men, girls and boys.

Krista Donaldson, CEO of D-Rev

PopTech

Since 2009, Krista Donaldson has been CEO of D-Rev, a not-for-profit based in Silicon Valley that brings medical devices to people living on less than $4 a day. The aim is to design first-rate medical equipment better suited to developing countries, then license it to for-profit distributors in those areas. Under her leadership, D-Rev has led the design and scaling in emerging markets of Brilliance, an affordable treatment for babies with jaundice, and the ReMotion prosthetic knee, now worn by over 5,500 amputees. She has been recognized by Fast Company as one of the 50 designers shaping the future, and the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer.

I’d like to see a broader view when we talk about women in the workforce – I’ve seen a lot of talk focused on women in technology or women in the corporate sector. Too often this conversation is skewed by prioritization of corporate jobs over other sectors. If we want to build a better world, we need to build better equality and diversity in every sector. I work in the social sector and I’m surrounded by female peers who have long leaned in, excelled in their careers – are literally changing the world and how society thinks. Where I see the biggest opportunity for growth is in redefining leadership and success.

Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii and got her first taste of scientific research working in a lab with a family friend in the summer before college. The bug bit, and Doudna went on to become a molecular and cell biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012 she and collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier engineered a simple, inexpensive and broadly effective technology for changing or correcting DNA sequences within cells. This technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, harnesses a bacterial adaptive immune system as a powerful tool for editing DNA sequences, similar to editing the text of a document. The CRISPR-Cas9 system could one day be used to treat a range of hereditary disorders such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. Doudna was one of six scientists awarded the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, which honours transformative advances towards understanding living systems and extending human life.

On a recent visit to a seventh-grade classroom, I was inspired by the eager faces of girls and boys who share a passion for the joy of discovery and the sleuthing that is science. I am working to foster a scientific community that welcomes all people to participate in the research endeavour.

Angélica Fuentes, CEO of Omnilife

Angélica Fuentes

Angélica Fuentes is one of Latin America’s most prominent businesswomen. She is CEO and managing shareholder of the global nutrition company Omnilife. Fuentes also founded and leads Angelíssima, a cosmetics company which recruits armies of entrepreneurial saleswomen, offering them the chance to gain financial independence. As a philanthropist, she launched the Angélica Fuentes Foundation last year, with a $3 million endowment to promote the empowerment of Latin American women and girls. She serves as one of two Global Advocates for the United Nations Foundation´s Girl Up campaign and as a co-chair of the Mexico Gender Parity Taskforce, a World Economic Forum initiative. She is co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Latin America meeting in May 2015, which will be hosted in Mexico.

In today’s global economy, gender equality is a key driver of competitiveness, innovation and productivity. Investing in women and girls in Latin America can change the future of our region.

Terry Jester, CEO of Silicor Materials

Terry Jester

Terry Jester, a 35-year veteran of the solar industry, joined Silicor Materials in 2010 having been actively involved in the company as entrepreneur in residence at one of its financial backers, Hudson Clean Energy. Silicor Materials is notable for having developed a new way of manufacturing solar silicon at roughly half the production cost of traditional methods. It produces the most environmentally friendly solar silicon in the industry, requiring up to two-thirds less energy than competing methods and using no hazardous chemicals. A mechanical engineer, Jester has managed large solar operations and held engineering positions at SoloPower, SunPower, SolarWorld, Siemens, Arco and Shell. She participated in the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, speaking on “Energy Innovations with the Technology Pioneers.”

I have always approached my life assuming equality. I grew up with five brothers who treated me as their equal. I think of it as freedom to make use of all the brainpower and emotional energy available and necessary for both men and women to give our best to whatever we do. Women tend to think more about the communal good, which is required for progress overall in the world. We need more of that thinking, plain and simple.

Krithi Karanth, Conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society

krithi

Krithi Karanth, a torchbearer for wildlife conservation in India, first tracked tigers at the age of eight. Her father was one of India’s pioneering conservation biologists and Karanth saw first-hand the many threats to wildlife. For a long time, she says she wanted to “be anything other than a conservation biologist”, but her passion for nature eventually won out. Research led her to realize that threats to wildlife often stemmed from conflict with people who suffered from losses of crops, livestock and property. As a result, she set about mapping and modelling such conflict zones across India. Now associate conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society, she has led the use of science and technology to balance human-wildlife interactions in India.

Wildlife science and conservation needs more women.

Shannon May, Founder of Bridge International Academies

Shannon May

As an anthropologist conducting research in rural China, Shannon May saw close-up how primary education was failing already impoverished families. The experience prompted her to research how children could be taught the skills they need to thrive, harnessing data and technology to make a replicable and affordable model of education. The result was Bridge International Academies, the world’s largest private provider of nursery and primary education for families living on $2 a day or less. Bridge International, which charges $6 a month on average, launched its first school in Nairobi in 2009. It has now expanded across Africa, educating over 100,000 pupils, and plans to reach 10 million children across a dozen countries by 2025.

If we keep the status quo in education, it won’t be until 2070 that all rural girls in Nigeria will complete primary school. We need to examine how we’ve created an education system that systematically excludes marginalized populations. Little is being done with urgency to ensure that every girl has access to a classroom not just to sit, but to learn. This International Women’s Day, let’s also prepare to celebrate the girls who will lead us in the generations to come by ensuring that every girl has the chance to fulfil her potential.

Tolu Olubunmi, Co-founder of Welcome.us

Tolu

Tolu Olubunmi credits her work on immigration policy and social innovation to her own struggles with US immigration law. She was born in Nigeria and brought to the US aged 14. After graduating in chemical engineering, she found herself unable to work in her chosen profession due to complications with her immigration status. Rather than give up, she began volunteering her time advocating for the rights of young immigrants. She started her career in public affairs as a fellow with the National Immigration Law Center and quickly established herself as an innovative and respected leader on immigrants’ rights. She is a co-founder and former executive director of Welcome.us, an NGO celebrating the US as a nation fuelled by an immigrant tradition. During the height of the immigration reform debate in Congress, Olubunmi was invited by President Barack Obama to speak at the White House. She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration and is an inaugural Leadership Institute Fellow with the Center for American Progress.

A woman’s achievements are her own and we must resist the urge to judge them by what is expected of women or what is generally ascribed to men.

Rapelang Rabana, Founder and CEO of Rekindle Learning

Rapelang Rabana

Dubbed the “Marissa Mayer of the Silicon Cape”, South African entrepreneur and computer sciences graduate Rapelang Rabana co-founded Yeigo, one of the world’s first mobile VoIP applications. Named one of Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs by Forbes Africa, she became a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, all before the age of 30. In 2013, she launched the online training and education company Rekindle Learning. She actively promotes the role of women in business as well as the potential of mobile technology to seed new business opportunities that provide much-needed jobs and crack socio-economic challenges.

To build more resilient communities and societies, we must leverage the strengths and values of all people, men and women.

Chetna Sinha, Founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, India

chetna sinhaBorn in Mumbai, Chetna Sinha abandoned the urban lifestyle to pursue a career in farming in the drought-prone area of Maharashtra in Western India. As a result, she experienced first-hand the difficulties facing women in this region, from the lack of financial support to the fact that they are not treated as viable entrepreneurs. She went on to develop India’s first rural co-operative bank owned by women. The Mann Deshi Mahila Bank is a micro-enterprise development bank working with low-income women, which provides business loans. She established a business school for rural women to provide training in entrepreneurial skills. Since 1996, Sinha has been organizing women in rural areas of Maharashtra in the fight for land and property rights and she launched a community radio station, providing a platform for sharing information. She also set up a toll-free hotline linked to India’s Chamber of Commerce to give rural women financial advice. Mann Deshi aspires to launch 1 million rural women entrepreneurs through partnerships with social enterprises and mainline financial institutions in India. Sinha was named India Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 for her work with Mann Deshi, and a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014.

If you want a successful social enterprise, tap into the talent of women.

Esra’a Al Shafei, Founder of Mideast Youth

esraa

A Bahraini civil rights activist and digital entrepreneur, Esra’a Al Shafei sees the internet as a tool to promote freedom of speech and foster change. In 2006, aged just 20, she founded online forum Mideast Youth, which seeks to give young people a voice in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The organization builds web and mobile applications that amplify the voices of under-represented communities in the MENA region and beyond. Its projects include CrowdVoice.org, which crowdsources and curates eyewitness photos, videos, data and reports on protests and social justice movements in places that traditional media often cannot access. Mideast Youth also runs Ahwaa.org, a forum for the LGBT community in the Arab world, where young people can discuss issues on identity in countries where homosexuality can be punishable by imprisonment or death, and Mideast Tunes, which is currently the largest platform for underground musicians in the MENA region who use music as a tool for social change. Al Shafei is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media, a senior TED fellow and a recipient of the Berkman Award from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society for “outstanding contributions to the internet and its impact on society”.

We need to remove the barriers to entry for women in tech. It’s time for the industry to value female talent and perspective.

Kathryn Sullivan, US Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere

Kathryn Sullivan

Part of NASA’s first class of female astronauts, selected in 1978, Kathryn Sullivan went on to fly three shuttle missions and became the first American woman to walk in space. Having seen Earth from that privileged vantage point, Sullivan now works to help people understand how dynamic our home planet is and use that information to help communities become more resilient to natural hazards and climate change. She left NASA in 1993 to take a series of high-level jobs, first as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now as head of the same organization. An Earth scientist and PhD geologist/oceanographer, she works on harnessing big data from space to draw attention to the fragility of the climate.

We’ve made tremendous strides toward gender equality, but there’s much more to be done. Now is the time to #makeithappen.

Leila Takayama, Senior Researcher at Google[x]

Leila

Specializing in human-robot interaction, Leila Takayama wants to make robots that are better able to integrate into the human world and perform useful roles at work and in homes. As research scientist at robotics company Willow Garage, she teamed up with an animator and sound designer at Pixar Studios to come up with gestures and emotive beeps and whirrs to make robots more approachable. Now a senior researcher at Google[x] – a Google lab that aims for “moonshots” in science and technology – she is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and a Global Agenda Council Member for AI & Robotics. Takayama has also been named one of Technology Review’s top 35 innovators under 35, and one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company.

Inventing a future we actually want to live in requires engaging the perspectives from women and men alike. Those diverse discussions lead to more informed and creative solutions.

Author: Ceri Parker is an Associate Director at the World Economic Forum, and edits the Agenda blog platform.

Image: Students take part during the “One Billion Rising” dance campaign at all-girls school St Scholastica college in Manila. REUTERS/Erik De Castro