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Q&A: Why Weren’t There More Women Delegates in Davos?

  • Frances Alonzo

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde at Davos.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde at Davos.

From business leaders, such as Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and President and CEO Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!, to economic decision makers, such as Janet Yellen at the U.S. Federal Reserve and Daniele Nouy at the European Central Bank’s supervisory board, women have risen to top posts in the male-dominant business world in the recent years.

However, that rise wasn’t reflected in Davos recently, where 2,500 delegates attended the World Economic Forum conference. Among them, 16 percent were female, down from 17 percent in 2013. While there were high profile women in attendance, like the chief of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, Helen Clarke of the UNDP, Arianna Huffington of AOL, and Melanne Verveer from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security , the numbers don’t lie.

Carol Yost, the Senior Director of the Women's Empowerment Program at the Asia Foundation, spoke to VOA’s Frances Alonzo about why women’s issues are among the top issues at the forum and what should have gotten more attention.

YOST: The statistics on the participation in Davos were quite shocking I think. There were very, very, low level of women participants over all in the forum and certainly women's empowerment but I'm not sure it got the serious attention it deserved.

ALONZO: Why is that?

YOST: I don't think it ever makes it to the top of the agenda because there are so many other pressing issues and there's always, women always are kind of secondary. Well if we have time, or we’ll put it on the agenda for this one short session. Women are very marginalized I think, even in a forum like Davos.

ALONZO: In your view, what will it take change that viewpoint?

YOST: Well, I think the organizers need to be much more aware of who's participating and the issues that go on to the agenda. I would hope they could be encouraged or shamed into making a big step forward in this whole arena where it is a serious gap. But [there] would have to be kind of a consciousness among the organizers and then pressures brought to bear on why you don't have more women. Why aren't more women participating, why aren't women's issues higher on the agenda and more discussion of if you are discussing economic growth, what is women's role in that specifically? Women are such an extraordinary untapped resource for economic growth, certainly in our region of Asia, South East and East Asia. The countries are going to lag behind if they don't employ this huge human resource that they have. Women want to work, they want to earn an income, so it has to have regulations [that] are user-friendly, programs that encourage women entrepreneurs that make credit available, training and how to run a business, how to manage accounts, to get them a leg up.

ALONZO: To be honest with you, it seems like all the things that you were talking about [are] very easy to do. They don't seem insurmountable, what is it that is holding women back in many of the Asian countries?

YOST: I think what's always held them back, their needs and opportunities for them are not prioritized particularly to address the problems that they [face]; it's trying to manage childcare, working in the household, with jobs.

ALONZO: With regard to the Economic Forum, would you go far as to characterize that women's issues, women's economic empowerment issues are being ignored?

YOST: I haven’t exactly followed the entire agenda, so I don’t think I can answer that, in looking over the agenda it certainly looked like women’s issues were being largely ignored. Economic empowerment is so important for women, because there are so many other benefits that cascade from that. Many studies do show that when women have income one of the first things they spend it on is educating their children where that’s not as true for men. So if you have a marginal increase in women’s income it benefits the household, their children, they eat better, health care, so everybody benefits from those investments in women and their ability to become, you know, economically viable.