Roxanne Mankin Cason(WOMENSENEWS)–Many of the world’s most powerful leaders are now gathering in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum, which starts today and ends Jan. 31. For years, the gathering was almost exclusively male and its discussions lacked consideration of the gender angle.

But change is more possible than ever and it is time for the World Economic Forum to move gender issues to the heart of its agenda.

Despite the lack of gender issues on past agendas, ironically the forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report has become a trusted source of information on progress made–or the lack thereof–by the world’s nations towards gender parity. Its premise is that a nation’s well-being is correlated to the status of women. One has only to look at the top of the report’s rankings, dominated by Scandinavian countries, to see the connection. At the bottom of the 2009 list: Yemen.

The discourse at the forum itself, however, hasn’t been focused enough on the undervalued asset, in terms of human capital, represented by women and girls. Last year, during a Davos conversation on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, it was agreed that the 2008 economic crisis might have been averted had the firm been "Lehman Brothers and Sisters."

There is much more to say, though.

As this year’s program explores its theme, "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild," perhaps another word should be added: Reframe.

How to Reframe the Discussion

What topics might a reframed discussion include? Here are a few suggestions:


  • On the economy: Discussion of the global financial crisis at Davos could be informed by a recent report from the New York-based National Council of Research on Women. It asserts that women tend "to be more consistent in managing investments, to examine more conflicting data when making investment decisions and to be more methodical." Far short of critical mass, some reports indicate women currently manage only 3 percent of the trillions invested in hedge funds.


  • On global development: Those in Davos should heed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s January 6 speech on gender. In it she acknowledged that "women and girls are one of the world’s greatest untapped resources," adding that, "the United States is taking steps to put women front and center in our development work." She characterized women as "those most responsible for growing the world’s food, caring for the world’s sick and raising the world’s children." Clearly she knows the enormity of the problem–and the opportunity for real solutions.


  • On global stability and security: The evidence continues to grow for the link between gender equity and a nation’s stability. Exxon Mobil has invested significantly in leadership, education and financial literacy for women and girls in Africa. Their work includes Ishrak, a program supporting Egyptian girls’ education in which I am proud to be involved. The results have been dramatic–fathers who previously insisted on keeping their daughters home are now bursting with pride at their daughters’ achievements and seeing the girls as valued assets.


  • On women’s political leadership: Although men still dominate, glimmers of change abound. One example: the lower house of parliament in Rwanda, a nation driven by conflict, is 55 percent female, the highest in the world. These Rwandan women, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other female leaders provide a laboratory for the positive change that’s possible when women achieve critical mass in political leadership. Former U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt has for years, through her inclusive security work–where women from opposing sides in conflict areas are brought together for discussion and training–advanced women’s leadership in 40 conflict areas around the world, including Rwanda and Liberia.

Issues Defy Easy Solutions

World Economic Forum How do we consider these and other vital issues, such as sex trafficking? It isn’t easy.

Christine Grumm, CEO of the global Women’s Funding Network, cites a term from the field of social and technological innovation in describing these interconnected issues: "the wicked problem," one that defies easy solutions.

Isobel Coleman, writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs about Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s groundbreaking book "Half the Sky," reminds us that the fundamental challenge around gender bias is cultural. "Many people in the West," she says, "too often ignore the problems confronting women in other parts of the world by dismissing, or even condoning, the oppressive practices there as those of a different culture." It is safe to say this mindset has been present in Davos.

That is changing, however, and there are those at Davos who are eminently qualified to lead the gathering in a new direction. The Gates Foundation, Exxon Mobil, Ernst and Young, Goldman Sachs, the Nike Foundation and many others are seasoned in integrating gender considerations into the collective conversation. If only others who are present could keep in mind their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and granddaughters–and extrapolate that awareness into their public thinking. The possibilities are positively breathtaking.

A gender-mindful approach should permeate the discourse at Davos. Let’s reframe, rethink redesign and rebuild.

Roxanne Mankin Cason is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader 2009 and currently serves as chair of the Global Advisory Education Board and as a trustee of Save the Children.