By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Despite the World Economic Forum’s controversial “quota” system of inviting one woman for every four men to its annual meeting at Davos, the ratio of women in attendance remained small this year. Only 17% of those in attendance last month were female, and, only 20% of those invited to speak on panels were women.
But according to The Guardian’s Jane Martinson, the WEF is standing by its quota system, and hopes that time will bring more women to the table. The organization believes that by engaging more women in top-level decision-making, the economic situation around the world will improve. She wrote, “This idea plays into one theme of this year’s Davos: that as the current economic and political crisis was made by men, the inclusion of more women can only help matters.”
She also quoted Cherie Blair, who had a more pointed take on the situation. “If the world doesn’t start giving a proper platform for women, then it will fall flat on its face.”
While Davos struggled to increase its percentage of establishment women, a group of dynamic young women presented big ideas to leading under-30 change agents at last month’s Sandbox Global Summit in Lisbon, Portugal (where 31% of conference participants were women).
Waiting for change at the top is no longer an option, remarked Kelly Calvin, winner of one of six Bloomberg Businssweek fellowships to the Lisbon conference. She believes it is critical for leaders to pay attention to young women when it comes to our global future, and, she said, many global leaders have not yet realized why.
“I think it should be clear, but unfortunately it’s obviously not clear to today’s leaders. There are more young women going to college and graduate school than ever before, and, in America, more women than men. We are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, we are starting businesses like never before, and in a very short time it will no longer be an oddity to see a female global leader, but an expectation.”
She added, “They need to pay attention to us now because our voices are the voices of the very near future.”
Young Women Insist On Change
The Sandbox Global Summit brings together 170 under-30 change makers from around the world to present one-hour interactive sessions. Bloomberg Businessweek awarded six fellowships to attend to talented young women who are committed to helping women and girls around the world to overcome difficult circumstances and achieve their full potential.
Cynthia Hellen, winner of a fellowship and founder of Girls Who Rock, a concert benefitting fundraising efforts for girls’ education around the world, explained that many people just aren’t aware of the challenges girls and women face around the world. She explained:
“Lets face it, 190 heads of state — nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats — tops out at 15%. Not to mention women earn 10% of the world’s income, women also own less than 1% of the world’s property, and women make up two-thirds of the estimated 876 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write; having girls make up 60% of the 77 million children not attending primary school.”
Advocating awareness and taking action is critical in order to achieve gender parity, she said. While reaching that balance will take time, she continued, “I’m hopeful that future generations can. I think a world that was run where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world.”
Being a change-agent isn’t easy, added Tiphani Montgomery, Bloomberg Businessweek fellow and financial literacy advocate. But, it is possible.
“My advice for other women who are working to create positive change is to never take no for an answer. You will be told that you’re too young, too old, and unqualified to change the world and all of those things may be true, but what you do have is a particular set a skills that no one else can execute like you will. You have the burning passionate desire to make a difference and that is all it ever takes.”
She added, “Do not wait passively for doors to be opened for you. Sometimes you will have to kick a few down.”
Importance of Mentors
Several of the fellows remarked on the importance of networking and seeking mentors – both peers and more experienced individuals.
Calvin, Founder of Michelle In Training, an organization that teaches professionalism and self esteem to underprivileged high school girls, said, “Seek out mentors, and not just older women but girls your own age who have already accomplished something you would like to accomplish, and seek out male mentors as well.”
Calvin added that she recently founded The Mary Tyler Moore Society as a way to connect peer mentors.
Tammy Tibbets, fellow and founder of She’s The First, a non-profit supporting girls’ education in the developing world, explained that networking is one way to help diverse individuals amplify their efforts. She explained, “It’s the ‘how’ we need to think about. Networks like Sandbox provide a culture and a place for diverse voices to be heard.”
Tibbets said she has had many mentors throughout her career, but one of them, her first boss provided her with a piece of advice she repeats every day: “Don’t let perfection get in the way of better.”
This mantra can be a powerful reminder for change-agents around the world, working to make a difference for women and girls. There’s no one pathway forward, and some efforts won’t be perfect. But by working together, supporting one another, and sharing bold new ideas, the next generation of female leaders is already working to help shape a better future.