Each year, thousands of people make the trek up the mountains to Davos, Switzerland to hear some of the world’s best thinkers talk about trends in economics, business, innovation, and social responsibility at the World Economic Forum (WEF). This year’s WEF was chaired by an all-female group for the first time in history, and not surprisingly, gender equality was a prominent theme. However, despite this focus, WEF participants were still overwhelmingly male. One bright spot: half of the 130 WEF attendees under age 40 were women this year. Since Plan International USA’s purpose is to ensure girls realize their rights, the fact that young women’s participation at WEF was equal to young men’s was welcome news to me.
Women may still make up only slightly more than 20 percent of the delegates to WEF, but you would never know that when you stepped into The Female Quotient’s Equality Lounge in Davos. The Equality Lounge is the brainchild of Shelley Zalis, who wanted to create a space for women to network at events largely dominated by men. The Lounge has grown from an informal networking space for a small group of women to a must-attend event at Adweek, Cannes Lions, the Consumer Electronics Show, South by Southwest, and WEF. The Female Quotient is one of Plan International USA’s International Day of the Girl partners, and we share the strong conviction that girls and women belong anywhere and everywhere men and boys do—that #GirlsBelongHere. This year’s WEF Equality Lounge boasted a lineup of speakers and panelists who are leaders in gender equality across media, advertising, financial services, technology, and the non-profit sector. With the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, women and men tackled topics like equal pay, advancing more women into senior management and boards of directors, and parental leave policies that that don’t leave the burden of child care to women. Seeing influential brands’ efforts to address the way media portrays women and to debunk myths about women in leadership gave me hope that this moment for women and girls will last long enough to achieve substantial change.
It was easy to be inspired by individual and collective actions being taken toward achieving gender equality, but the reality is that we have a long way to go to get there. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 sets a target of achieving gender equality by 2030, which means we have twelve short years to undo generations of inequality. Do we have the collective will to address the fact that 130 million girls are not in school? Can we put an end to harmful practices like early forced marriage, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence? Will the private sector, governments, and civil society join together to create true economic opportunity for girls and women? These are not developing country issues; they are universal issues. In my daily work, I hear about women who have no access to banking, financial literacy, or capital. At Davos, I heard from female entrepreneurs about the difficulty in gaining access to investment capital when women make up only 7 percent of decision makers in venture capital. Providing equal opportunity for girls and women takes a commitment that is more than a moment or a hashtag. It will take investment, policy changes, and social accountability.
As a marketer, fundraiser, and storyteller, it is my job to tell girls’ and women’s stories and recruit support in the fight for equality, whether on Main Street, USA or at WEF in Davos. However, women and girls are experts on their own lives, and it is up to all of us to provide opportunities for them to tell their own stories and advocate for their rights. Young women in particular are too often left out of important discussions and decisions that impact their lives. As Malala Yousafzai said, “So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity.”
Girls’ voices can provide important perspectives on education, social justice, and economic empowerment. In Plan programs, girls use their knowledge and skills for everything from girl-friendly latrines to safer cities. They work locally to help prevent trafficking and they advocate nationally for minimum marriage age laws. They show us that achieving gender equality doesn’t mean creating a world where girls can exercise their rights, it’s giving them the opportunity to do so themselves. That means ensuring that their voices are heard where people in power convene.
As I slid down the icy streets from meetings to events, my head was spinning with ideas and questions, admittedly not all related to gender equality. I wondered if our new coworkers that are robots will come with the same challenges and biases our human coworkers come with. Will we adopt blockchain technology to be used for social good? What will happen in the long term with cryptocurrency? Most of all, I wondered where the next generation of Davos attendees will be in the fight for gender equality. I took heart as I observed the crowd in the Equality Lounge all week. On day one, it was filled with women. By day three, men and women filled every available space in the lounge, listening to speakers and exchanging business cards, ideas, and tips for avoiding bad falls on the ice. As men would come in, they would ask, “What’s happening in here?” My answer? “Something big.”