Accelerating the Path to Gender Parity

This week we commemorate the 100th International Women's Day, celebrating the enormous strides women have made over the past century. Yet, there are still vast differences between women and men in terms of access to resources and opportunities. How can we ensure that we do not have to wait another hundred years before we can celebrate full equality between women and men?

First, we must build an effective case for gender parity. Girls and boys, women and men, should have the right to equal access to security, freedom, resources and opportunities. Complementing this values-based argument is an immense set of literature around the economic case for gender parity. Some of the earliest research in this area demonstrated that investment in female education has a significant multiplier effect on fertility rates, infant mortality rates, maternal mortality rates and women's labour force participation and income.

The World Economic Forum's research has demonstrated a strong positive correlation between closing gender gaps and country competitiveness. Other studies have shown a positive correlation between gender diversity on organizational leadership teams and financial results, while others have found that more diverse teams make better informed decisions, leading to less risk taking and more successful outcomes. There is also new research on the growing "power of the purse" and how female spending priorities may lead to rising household savings rates and shifting spending patterns in emerging markets.

Second, in order to address the problem efficiently, it is imperative that we measure the magnitude of the issue, set benchmarks and track progress against targets. The World Economic Forum produces an annual Global Gender Gap Index, ranking economies according to how well they are distributing opportunities and resources between women and men, regardless of the overall level of resources. The United Nations Development Programme, the Economist Intelligence Unit, UN Women, the Gender Equality Project and several other organizations provide various tools for assessing aspects of gender equality. Governments and business now have a large variety of instruments and methodologies at their disposable for measuring gender parity, setting credible targets and tracking progress against those targets.

Third, for a growing number of organizations, the question is not why or where, but how to close the gender gap. To do this, we must explore the policy design choices available and implement those that best fit specific countries, companies and organizations. Different forms of mentorship, communication, quotas, diversity training, financial incentives, parental leave benefits, recruiting practices, work-life balance measures, taxation and other policies, have been successfully implemented by different organizations and governments. However, information on best practices tends to be fragmented and organizations and governments often tend to have to learn by doing, slowly, rather than being able to learn from and build upon the experience of others. The Global Gender Parity Group - a community of organizations committed to gender parity - recently launched a project to accumulate and share best practices from businesses. These businesses have successfully impacted gender parity, within their internal structures, through changes to their supply and distribution chains and in their individual communities. Additionally, in the next Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum will release a new dataset on existing government practices that facilitate women's integration into the workforce.

Once the process of change starts, it will lead to very rapid progress. We have seen this at the Forum. In 2010, we introduced a new policy requiring the companies that are most closely engaged with the Forum to bring at least one female executive among five delegates attending Davos. The number of mixed-gender delegations doubled. In 2009, the Forum announced a target of gender parity for our Young Global Leaders community to be achieved within the next five years - the 2011 class will be composed of 44 percent women. Within our internal structure, in 2005, the percentage of women among our director-level positions was less than 15 percent; today, almost 50 percent of these positions are occupied by women.

In this era of growing access to information, the tools, the reasoning and the solutions for gender parity are increasingly available to many of us. It is imperative that each organization, government, company and individual use this knowledge to implement tailored policies to help close gender gaps well before the next 100 years go by. The future prosperity of the world - not just one half of it - depends on how effectively we accelerate the pace of gender parity.

Saadia Zahidi is the director of the Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme at the World Economic Forum. Klaus Schwab is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.