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Global leaders call for more female participation at Davos' World Economic Forum

Leaders from around the world called on the World Economic Forum to improve female representation, highlighting improved business and social outcomes when gender parity is achieved.

This year, 24% of participants at the exclusive annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, were women, up from 15% in 2014, according to data from the World Economic Forum. Attendance at Davos is typically invitation only, and leadership at the conference has pledged to raise female representation to 40% by 2030.

But one group of global leaders is pushing for more: equal gender representation.

"The representation is creeping up … but clearly among the women there's a sense of urgency that this shouldn't be the way it is, that we need to aspire to 40%, and go on to 50," said Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and previous administrator of the United Nations Development Program.

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Helen Clark  Gilad Thaler

She spoke to CBS News after moderating a panel in Davos titled, "The Reykjavik Index for Leadership 2019: Measuring perceptions to speed up the journey to equality." The panel was organized by Women Political Leaders, a global network of female politicians, and co-hosted by CBS News and Ketchum, a global public relations firm.

"Davos, while it's an extremely important platform … in the end it's a business that makes decisions about how it wants to run," Clark said. "I think it could really push the bar higher."

Other speakers at the panel included Jose Manuel Barroso, the former prime minister of Portugal and current chairman of Goldman Sachs International; Ute Benzel, regional managing partner of EY Germany Switzerland Austria; Stephanie Buscemi, chief marketing officer at Salesforce; Ann Cairns, the vice-chairman of MasterCard; Barri Rafferty, the president and chief executive officer of Ketchum; and Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital. 

This year's World Economic Forum concluded on Friday, but the work to achieve gender parity at the conference is just beginning. 

"That will require companies to send different delegations, but it's possible," Clark said. "We know women are out there in positions, we know that they can stand tall … at these forums, but I think I think it's just a question of Davos saying 'yes … we want more women's voices.'"

By including more women at the World Economic Forum, panelists argued that conversations about solving the world's most pressing issues -- like climate change and income inequality -- would be even more constructive.

"It's important because we have a lot to say," Benzel told CBS News. "So we have a lot to participate in, and we have a lot of new topics which we can cover."

According to a report released in November, Canada and France ranked the highest on The 2019 Reykjavik Index for Leadership, which measures the extent to which women and men are perceived as equally suitable to lead. The United States came in third place, while the United Kingdom fell in ranking from 2018.

"On average in the G7 in 2019, just 46% of society is very comfortable with a woman as head of government, and 48% with a woman as CEO of major national company," said the 2019 Reykjavik Index report. 

Cairns said hiring managers are key. 

"If you're a global company and you look who is running your country businesses, it's possible to say: 'I would like to have more women in those roles.' How do you achieve that? You actually start talking to the hiring managers, and you say, 'Tell me what slate you've prepared for this job,'" Cairns told CBS News. "Try and create a 50-50 slate of men and women. And then think about the criteria you're using to put people in those jobs."

"And it can be in difficult countries … there's nowhere that you can't do this. You just have to believe," she said.

–Audrey McNamara, Alex Pena and Gilad Thaler contributed to this report

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