Behind every successful female leader there are countless women and men making the path easier

The World Economic Forum's drive for gender equality places the issue at the top table of power, but there is much to be done at Davos and elsewhere to make sexual discrimination a thing of the past.

Barri Rafferty:
Barri Rafferty:

Are you a spouse? I was asked this question more than once at evening events at the World Economic Forum, despite my badge having a blue line indicating "official participant", and a CEO title.

I had many conversations with said spouses of Davos attendees, and frankly most would be able to get to the event on their own merits.

The experience brings to mind the ubiquitous saying, "Behind every successful man is a woman," and I can’t help but think it is overdue for retirement. I’d like to invite you to envision a future where that spouse question would not even enter someone's mind.

Being asked this question got me thinking about how I got where I am today as a participant at Davos.

Male or female, it is an honor and I cherish the fact that I'm among this select group and have the opportunity to be involved in the discussions shaping the world we live in, now and for the future.

It takes a village, a blended village made up of mums, dads, caretakers, teachers, colleagues and mentors, to raise a leader. That was certainly the case for me and my career at Ketchum.

With gender parity squarely on the agenda at this year’s event I was able to share with other women the challenges we have encountered in our corporate climbs and the inequities women face globally, with continued lack of rights and security.

It was only after attending the World Economic Forum two years ago that my eyes were truly opened to the extent of gender inequity around the world and it inspired me. I returned from that meeting more energised than ever and began on a journey to do more to help advance women’s rights and their standing within the corporate community.

Before being one of just 14 per cent of women attending that year, I hadn’t felt the need to be more active, but something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg highlighted struck a chord – she stressed the importance of speaking out and providing role models for women who need them.

At the time, I had a 12-year-old daughter and a light bulb went on. I realised the path was not paved for her to grow up in a non-gender-biased world, and I vowed to do my part to change that.

This year, we all agreed the real goal is making gender parity a non-issue and getting it off the agenda of the annual meeting. I personally hope that happens in my daughter's lifetime.

As one of the 16 per cent of female participants in Davos this year, I had the privilege of being front and centre in the dialogue about making such change happen. It’s also exciting to see my colleagues in the UK exploring these very issues, notably with the introduction of PRWeek’s Mentoring Project, which is committed to helping women feel more able to reach the top levels of agency life.  

Davos can continue to do more to level the playing field. The Global Gender Gap Index introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, for instance, is the foremost resource for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and tracking progress in closing the gender gap based on economic, political, education and health-based criteria.

More generally, we all have to encourage men to shift their behaviours.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, corrected men at least twice when they used male biased language. One example: she suggested using the term "other sex" instead of "opposite sex". Many of us agreed that we need to coach men and raise our boys differently to shift the problems.

In the meantime, I have no doubt the world would be better off with more women in power to drive business results, global competition and peace. And I think the World Economic Forum is helping us get closer to that shared goal.

Barri Rafferty is a senior partner and CEO of Ketchum’s North American operations. She comments regularly on women’s leadership and other topics @barrirafferty and on the Ketchum Blog.


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