Gender Equality Becomes A Key Focus Of The 2015 World Economic Forum


There has been a lot of talk about Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It made a lot of headlines not only because she was launching the second phase of the He For She campaign, the first phase of which also went viral after her speech in September 2014, but because gender equality hasn’t always been the number one issue on the ticket of the annual event.

WEF, which is attended by government heads, economic leaders, entrepreneurs and world-changers, is “committed to improving the state of the world” according to the official website, and how better to do this than to address a key issue that affects half the world’s population.

Not every speaker based their talk around gender equality, but those that did made sure to tell the mostly-male audience and the media that this is not just something that affects women, it is something that men need to engage with in a big way. A panel focused on women in the workplace brought some great ideas and quotes to the forefront of gender equality.

Philanthropist, activist and wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Melinda Gates spoke on a topic she knows best: how giving women the tools to economic empowerment is the key to alleviating poverty and elevating the financial state of communities.

Both Bill and Melinda believe that through the right economic opportunities, the lives of the world’s poor will improve more in the next 15 years than it has in all of history. One of the key methods is education.


“Children of educated mothers are 50% more likely to [live to] five years old; and there is twice as much chance educated mothers will have their own children educated. If you invest in a girl or a woman, you are investing in everybody else.”

Research from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows that empowering and adding women to the global workforce has the potential to increase the GDP by 12% in Africa and 10% in India.

President of Rwanda Paul Kagame who was on the panel echoed the same sentiments and his country is a great example of why empowering women is beneficial. After the horrific civil war in the early 1990s which saw thousands upon thousand of Hutus and Tutsis slaughter each other, the country re-wrote the constitution and included a clause that mandated at least 30% of the government’s cabinet be made up of women.

“We supported this by encouraging women to stand in elections. Today 64% of the Rwandan MPs are women.” Just so you know, Rwanda is a third world country, yet it has the highest number of women in federal government than any other country in the world! Not only is it a leader in gender equality, but Rwanda is also Africa’s fastest growing non-oil economy.

UN Women Executive Director and head of UN’s Gender Equality Agenda, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, praised Rwanda’s efforts and said it is a prime example of what is possible elsewhere.


“Their culture is not different to elsewhere in Africa. It proves the critical importance of leadership. So much good has happened in Rwanda over the past 20 years because of its excellent leadership.”

But she was also frustrated at how far behind the world still is in terms of gender parity, even though it is 2015.

“There are many countries where women have their backs to the wall. In the last 20 years the percentage of women representatives in Parliament worldwide has risen by just 10% to 22%. At this rate it will take 50 years to reach parity. The pace is too slow.”

“Patriarchy is bestowed on men at birth. Whether you want it or not, you have a privilege as a man, and you either fight against it and reject it by becoming a feminist man, or you enjoy the privileges that come with it.”

Melinda, Paul and Phumzile all championed the need for greater access to technology for women as they believe it is an important step to attaining education and health in the 21st century.

Panelist Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever (a company where 80% of its brands are geared toward women) said gender equality should be “obvious to anyone with brains”, as hiring from 100% of the population is better than choosing from just 50%. Although his company does not have a hiring quota, they do impose equal opportunity values and instill changing behavior into their hiring process.

“We spend more time asking our managers why not? Things like: why hasn’t a diversity candidate been considered? It is hard work and takes a long time, but is paying off. At mid-level management 55% of the recruits are women. And Unilever’s gender ratio has improved 10 percent in the last four years.”


Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg who was also present on the panel said quotas are no longer necessary in her country. According to WEF data, Norway is the 3rd most gender equal country in the world, and sits at that ranking for the 3rd year in a row.

It is the highest ranked country overall for the ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership. It also has the highest rate of contraceptive prevalence among married women or those in a union, and has the smallest difference between the average minutes spent per day on unpaid work by men and women.

“A critical issue for women is the possibility to be a mother and the ability to participate fully in the workforce. We now have 10 weeks of mandatory paternity leave for men in Norway,” she said touching on an issue that will help the cause of gender parity worldwide.

“When I talk to young women they tell me we don’t need quotas, they want leadership positions on merit – 60% of our country’s graduates are women.”

While the issue of gender equality was an important one OF the forum, it was also a significant AT the event. This year’s attendance was made up of a mere 17% of women. Some of the women in attendance were of course the aforementioned Melinda Gates, Emma Watson, Erna Solberg and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, foreign minister of Georgia Tamar Beruchashvili, CEO and founder of Sheila Lirio Marcelo, and many more.


First-time attendee Patricia Villela Marino, a Brazilian businesswoman who oversees a fund that invests in social policy initiatives and is working on issues including legalizing marijuana for medical treatment, says there is a huge need for more woman to actually be present at forums like this as they need to be part of the gender equality conversation for it to happen in the first place.

She has been going to Davos for 9 years as a spouse, but this year she came on her own merit.

“I had two options: be in Zurich shopping and then hop in with my husband in his comfy car, or wake up and hop on the shuttle,” she told “It’s up to the women to be willing to come, leave family behind.”

“I don’t want to raise the flag that women are a minority and need to be treated differently,” she added. “In Davos, it’s clear that you have to go to the world and make your mark.” But it seemed more significant this year given that gender equality has been a widely reported-on topic in the media from the forum.

Women make up a larger number of younger leaders than ever before: Fifty-four percent of the forum’s Global Shapers community of 50 leaders between 20 and 30 years old were female. Among government officials at Davos, only 14 percent were women, while one in four academics was female, according to the WEF.

For gender parity to be reached and numbers of women to increase in leadership worldwide, it will take men recognizing the benefits of empowering the other half of the population, and at the same token, women need to be willing to step up to the plate to make a change, not just focus on the figures.





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