Rousseff, Mayer, Lagarde: Davos women on democracy, the NSA and the economy

January 28
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 “Where are the women?” was an oft-heard phrase at last week’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as delegates looked around and saw just 400 women among the more than 2,500 participants.

While it is true that there were nearly seven men for every female delegate at the annual gathering of the world’s political, financial and business elite, moaning about the low participation rate risks drowning out the voices of the women who spoke about many of the challenges facing the global economy.

These powerful Davos women had a lot to say. They weren’t shrinking violets who limited their comments to traditional women’s issues such as work-life balance, but were alpha women who tackled mainstream topics such as strengthening democracy, reducing poverty and minimizing the risks to the global economy.

At a time when bombs once were once again exploding in Cairo, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff referred to last year’s demonstrations in Brazil as an “inseparable part of the process of building a democracy and fostering social change.”  The transition to democracy, however, doesn’t have to be violent. Brazilian authorities did not crack down on the demonstrators, Rousseff stressed, adding that “democracy creates a demand for more democracy.”

Zeroing in on the theme of how to reduce economic inequality, Rousseff boasted that 42 million Brazilians have climbed into the middle class in the past decade. With the middle class now making up more than half of Brazil’s population, Rousseff proudly noted: “Brazil is becoming a mostly middle-class economy.”

Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became Africa’s first elected female president in 2006, highlighted an anti-poverty program that has had a rather unexpectedly large beneficial impact. Liberia has a program that gives at-risk people — the elderly, people living with disabilities and chronic illness, single mothers with dependents — about $20 in cash each month. This program has markedly improved the lives of those receiving the cash aid.

South Korea’s first woman to be elected president, Park Geun-Hye, talked about how entrepreneurship is “the driving force of stable, inclusive growth,” while Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway said that, “When you invest in a girl’s education, she feeds herself, her children, her community and her nation.”

Unlike many of today’s female leaders, Solberg isn’t the first woman to lead her country. That distinction goes to Gro Harlem Brundtland, who became Norway’s first female prime minister in 1981.

The benefits of schooling are undeniable. As Solberg said in remarks co-written with Hannah Godefa, a 16-year-old Ethiopian-born UNICEF ambassador of human rights, “The numbers don’t lie. For every year a girl stays in school and learns, her future earnings increase hugely. An extra year of primary school education, for example, boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. A one percentage point increase in female secondary education raises the average level of GDP by 0.3 percentage points.”  Investing in girls is the “ultimate investment in positive change,” Solberg stressed. Godefa is a remarkable young woman whose Pencil Mountain Project has sent nearly 500 million pencils to school children in Ethiopia.

The world’s leading woman in finance, the International Monetary Fund’s director Christine Lagarde said she was optimistic about the global economic outlook. Yet, she worried as much about the “old risks” of financial instability, massive unemployment — some 200 million people are out of work around the world — and slow and uneven economic growth as the “new risks” from the spillover effects to emerging markets that might arise when America ends its economic stimulus.

The businesswomen at Davos also made their mark. Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo and one of 23 women to lead a Fortune 500 company, said: “We must change the dialogue from what we do with the money to how we make the money.” As CEO of a company that sold more than $46 billion in soft drinks and snacks last year, Nooyi addressed corporate social responsibility.  “There is an ethical way to run a company and be profitable,” she stressed.

Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the introduction of Apple’s Macintosh, which fundamentally changed the way people use computers, Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer pointed out that the computer may be on its last legs. “By the end of this year we will have more mobile users and mobile traffic than on PC,” Mayer predicted.

Mayer had many opportunities to make news. Speaking just days after President Obama gave a speech about how to restrict the use of information the National Security Agency gathers, but not to stop gathering it, Mayer said that the government must be more transparent about what the NSA is doing.

The biggest coup for a woman, however, happened before Davos even opened. Days before the first delegate set foot in the Swiss ski resort, the British nonprofit Oxfam sent around a report “Working for the Few” showing that the 85 richest people on earth may control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people. That concentration of wealth has a pernicious effect, the report’s authors warned, saying that it “distorts the democratic process.”

Davos participant and Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima, a 57-year-old Ugandan aeronautical engineer, said: “It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world’s population – that’s three and a half billion people – own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”

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Mary C. Curtis | January 27