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Davos 2023: This is how to get more women into positions of power

It will take 132 years to close the global gender gap.

It will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Davos Agenda

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  • Jacinda Ardern said she was stepping down as New Zealand Prime Minister on the same day a panel in Davos discussed the pathways to female leadership.
  • It will take 155 years to reach gender parity in the Political Empowerment subindex of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
  • Here are the key takeaways from the Women’s Leadership session at the Forum’s Annual Meeting.

On the same day the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, stepped down saying she “no longer had enough in the tank to do the job justice”, women leaders met in Davos to discuss how to reach gender parity in leadership.

“Power is very hostile to women, we have just seen it this morning with Jacinda Ardern…” said Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Dean, The Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), Sciences Po, during the session at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting.

“Politics is an inhospitable place, but it is more inhospitable to women than it is to men. And this is something we should not accept.”

It will take 132 years to close the global gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022 - up from 100 years pre-pandemic. But that increases to 155 years for the Political Empowerment subindex, which is only 22% closed and the biggest of the gaps to close.

A bar chart showing the state of gender gaps, by subindex.
Political Empowerment is the biggest of the gender gaps to close. Image: Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

Only 5% of CEOs globally are women, according to a report published in July, while women make up fewer than one in five corporate leadership team members.

The Women’s Leadership: Towards Parity in Power session was moderated by Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director at the Forum, and the speakers also included Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Leader of the Democratic Forces of Belarus, Masih Alinejad, journalist and activist, US Agency for Global Media and Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of the State of Michigan.

Watch the session in full here.

Here are some of the key quotes on women’s equality today, why we need more women in positions of power and how to close the gender gap.

Diversity improves economies and democracies

“We talk a lot about how to make democracies work better, and they will not work better if half of the participants in these democracies are not included…” said Gonzalez Laya.

Women were instrumental in the pandemic response, but we also need them running countries, she added.

“We just went through a massive health crisis, where were the women? They were nurses, doctors, workers at the base of the pyramids. And they saved us... Where are the women? In the education sector, in science, because what matters is using your brains and women have plenty of brains to use. But where are they not? They are not in positions of power.

“Our economies are full of bright women, but we need to make sure this is not just at the heart, the base of our societies and our economies. But they also take the positions of leadership, mostly because diversity - which is what women will add when they get to positions of power - adds to the solidity and quality of the results and frankly, we need a bit of quality and solidity of results.”

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The pandemic’s impact on women

The pandemic had a greater impact on women - and many of them left the workforce to look after children.

“We called it a ‘shecession’,” said Whitmer. “Disproportionately, it took women out of the workplace. We also know there are too few women in the C-suite, in the private sector.

“It is more important than ever that we recognize this and work to eliminate the barriers that keep women from these leadership positions.

“There is much more work to do, but there is, without question, a real need for women in leadership positions. Companies that empower women do better, states that have female leaders find that issues that families are confronting are addressed and given voice to.

“As someone who was forged in the fire of being the sandwich generation, simultaneously caring for my mother who was dying of brain cancer and a daughter I had just given birth to, I confronted all of the things families are struggling with... We as a globe still struggle to make sure there is real equity and opportunity.”

Women need to believe in themselves - and fight for their rights

“I grew up in a post-Soviet Union country, where our girls from childhood were told that the biggest achievement in your life should be a good marriage. And that anything more complex is not acceptable and accessible to you,” said Tsikhanouskaya.

“Women should understand that they shouldn’t devote all their talents and experience only to their family. Our women are capable of everything, the only problem is that they don't always believe in themselves.”

Women from Iran need to fight every single day, said Alinejad.

“I am coming from a country where thinking of being part of the leadership is a crime... I have been telling women that if you really want freedom, dignity, democracy, you have to start your own revolution from your family’s kitchen, you have to be a leader.

“In Iran right now every single woman, teenagers, schoolgirls, are leading the revolution because we believe that this is the first time in history that women are being united with men shoulder to shoulder to bring [down] a dictatorship which is telling us what to wear, how to think, what kind of lifestyle to follow.”

Creating pathways into leadership

We need to support women who are stepping out front, said Whitmer. Women role models and men in leadership roles can help to open doors for women.

Whitmer said: “It starts with having each other’s back and showing that there is a path to leadership, and especially male leaders, to intentionally create those paths and make sure women get that seat in the C-suite or support a woman running for office or who is leading an organization or a department at university.

“It is really important for young women to be able to see themselves in a leader. The highest compliment is when a young woman comes up and says, ‘I think I can do that, because I see you doing it’. So, supporting and encouraging, and going out of our way to be intentional about finding those opportunities and helping women and young people get those internships and early opportunities to lead.”

“We need to have men who are working to eliminate the barriers that stand between female applicants and job opportunities… Not every young female is fortunate enough to have a dad like I did, someone who created some opportunities for me, that is why it is on all of us to be part of the solution. And we all benefit when we do.”

Education and quotas

It doesn’t happen organically, we also need education and quotas, said Gonzalez Laya.

“We will have to be much tougher about ensuring this dream of parity becomes a reality…

We should not accept this idea of girls whose futures are curtailed by not being able to go to school… We have to be a little bit more activistic. And for that, my sense is that this conversation cannot just be with women leaders. It has to be with men and women seated around the table because at the end of the day, we want a society that is more solid.

“When I started to work, I realized there were very often cases where I would be the only woman in the room, for no reason. There were very smart women outside the room, but they were simply not invited. If it is not going to happen organically, then yes we need quotas… You set a quota, fix objectives, yes you measure it and make sure this is respected. And you report on that.”

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