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Women May Be Under-represented at Davos but Theirs Are the Loudest Voices When It Comes to Calling for Gender Equality

29/01/2015 17:26 GMT | Updated 30/03/2015 10:59 BST

Last week I joined the annual gathering of business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. I was encouraged to see that social inclusion and gender equality were high on the agenda at this year's event, despite the fact that the level of female participation remained stubbornly low. This year women made up just 17% of the 2,500 attendees - the same level as two years ago. Of course, the truth is that women are under-represented at Davos because they are under-represented in all positions of power around the world, from senior management teams and company boards to seats in political and decision-making bodies.

Debate over the level of female participation at global events like the WEF is, of course, important, but we must also look beyond the figures. We must remember that those women who are being heard on such stages are having an enormous impact. Many of the sessions and events I attended at this year's WEF addressed issues of equal opportunity, diversity and women's empowerment - and it was notable that many of these conversations were being driven by women with a real sense of hope and determination.

Melinda Gates, for example, injected a powerful note of optimism into a session which looked at 'Ending Poverty through Parity'. Her analysis of why we should invest in women should serve as a reminder to everyone that women's economic empowerment is an issue that benefits us all. "If you invest in a girl or a woman, you are investing in everybody else," she said, noting that women tend to plough 90% of their income back into their families. "If we don't do this, we don't unlock the potential of what you can do for a family, society and a country". Indeed, this is the rationale that underlies the work of my own Foundation - the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women - which empowers women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies to become successful business owners and, in doing so, drive development in their own countries.

I also share Melinda's enthusiasm for the transformational potential of technology. She spoke about how mobile phones have the power to deliver financial services to women across the world. At my Foundation we have seen this logic in action - we are currently delivering a project in partnership with Visa, for example, which will empower 2,500 women in Nigeria to become agents in a mobile banking retail chain.

Elsewhere, other women at Davos were acknowledging the pivotal role that business can play in promoting gender equality. Sheryl Sandberg spoke about her latest initiative to extend internet connectivity to women across the world, whilst Latin American businesswoman and philanthropist Angélica Fuentes hosted an inspirational evening which brought together a range of people from private and public sectors to discuss women's entrepreneurship. Jill Huntley from Accenture also spoke with the CEO of my Foundation, Sevi Simavi, about a joint project we are delivering that will give 15,000 women in Rwanda the confidence, capability and access to capital they need to become successful business owners.

Bank of America is another large corporation that remains vocal and visible on the issue of women's empowerment. Its Global Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Anne Finucane has spoken out about the importance of mentorship in the fight for gender equality - another theme that cropped up in discussions at Davos this year. Bank of America recruit emerging leaders within its organisation to be mentors to women entrepreneurs in developing countries via the Mentoring Women in Business Programme that my Foundation runs. It's a win-win strategy that benefits everyone: the women mentees, the mentors (who are both men and women) and the bank as a whole, which uses the mentoring experience as a valuable tool for staff development and retention.

Mentoring was also one of the issues raised at the WEF Women Leaders Dinner I attended, where women such as Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Ambassador Melanne Verveer, led discussions around what works best to champion gender parity in the workplace. We talked about creating safe spaces for women to connect, monitoring pay equality and changing the culture of an organisation so that gender parity becomes a priority for everyone, rather than being seen as just a 'women's issue'.

Businesses must continue to take up their share of the work of empowering women across the world. Indeed, it will take strong leadership from every sector to ensure that 2015 becomes a decisive year for gender equality - and that includes leadership from men as well. This was the message delivered by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who arrived in Davos with the UN's Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson to launch the next phase of the dynamic campaign, HeForShe, which aims to bring men into the fight for gender equality. Because whilst it is important that women's voices continue to drive conversations about gender equality, men must also become active agents in this work.

There is no room for complacency or apathy in the struggle for women's empowerment. The WEF's own annual Global Gender Gap Report, published in November 2014, found that at the current rate of progress it will take another 80 years before the gender gap in economic participation is fully closed.

We cannot wait that long. The time for action is now. I felt a real sense of hope and urgency in the voices of those women - and men - speaking about gender equality last week. Let's bring that hope out of the snowy peaks of Davos and make sure it translates into real change for women in every village, town and city across the world.