(MoneyWatch) Talk about shattering the glass ceiling. A panel today in Davos, Switzerland, on "women in economic decision-making" featured the most powerful women in attendance at this year's World Economic Forum meeting.
The packed session in Congress Hall, which included a man, centered on the role of women in the global economy, including the impediments to their advancement in the corporate world. A startling statistic set the tone for the conversation: Although women now make up 60 percent of college grads in Europe; in the U.S. and Europe only 3-4 four percent of company chairman and CEOs are women.
What accounts for that disparity? Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook (FB), believes women "are held back by gender stereotypes" and that "we need to have a much more open conversation." Sandberg sees her own career as a marathon, where men and women begin at the starting line at the same time. Once the race begins, men are cheered on to move up the ranks, but it's a different story for women. As women make their way up the ladder, they commonly face questions about whether they can balance the responsibilities of work and family. Men have families too, don't they?
In the halls of the Congress Center, you can't help but notice that it's a male-dominated meeting. One of Wall Street's top bankers, JPMorgan Asset Management chief Mary Callahan Erdoes, told us the gender issues visible at Davos mirror those in the rest of world. Female representation among the government and corporate officials at the gathering is low. "But every year it gets bigger and every year it's less of an issue," Erdoes said. "The great thing is that most of them that are here speak up -- they are visible and they have their voices heard. That's the most important thing."
The gender disparity is even greater in other areas of the world, such as the Middle East. "We have to get the CEOs in major Arab countries to be convinced to hire women and mentor women, because that is what we need," said Lubna Olayan, CEO of Olayan Financing of Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. also needs to make progress. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics still show a pay gap between men and women. White women earned 82 percent as much as their male counterparts in 2011, while Asian women earned 77 percent as much as their male counterparts, according to BLS.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde believes "it makes economic sense to improve the situation of women. There are huge upsides."
She added, "We have to dare the difference and speak about it."