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(Click DAVOS for news from the World Economic Forum. Corrects spelling in 11th paragraph.)
(Bloomberg) -- When Patricia Villela Marino first came to Davos, Switzerland, nine years ago, she’d stay up late to make an online bid to get into the World Economic Forum’s panels. She was accompanying her husband, a Brazilian banker, and there were no seating guarantees.
This year, as a delegate in her own right, she attended about 40 panels or sessions connected with the forum, ranging from leadership to public policy. With a law degree from a Brazilian university, Marino oversees a fund that invests in social policy initiatives and is working on issues including legalizing marijuana for medical treatment.
“I had two options: be in Zurich shopping and then hop in with my husband in his comfy car, or wake up and hop on the shuttle” in hopes of getting into early morning sessions, said Marino, 44, gesticulating to make her point at a table in a hotel near the congress center, wearing a gray shawl and black leggings. “It’s up to the women to be willing to come, leave family behind.”
At about 17 percent, female attendance at the annual gathering of the rich and powerful has mostly stagnated in recent years, with gender parity decades away. Marino and other women in Davos last week said they were more focused on the enormous benefit they received -- and gave -- than on waiting for diversity initiatives to bear fruit.
Marino, who lives in Sao Paulo, said she didn’t see her own role in Davos as promoting gender parity, though to not acknowledge it wouldn’t be acceptable either.
“I don’t want to raise the flag that women are a minority and need to be treated differently,” she said. “In Davos, it’s clear that you have to go to the world and make your mark.”
Gender parity wasn’t on Tamar Beruchashvili’s mind either. The foreign minister of Georgia spent her time holding bilateral meetings on what she called the threat of her nation’s annexation by Russia.
“I’m here as a professional with a lot of responsibility,” said Beruchashvili, a first-time attendee. Women make up a larger number of younger leaders than ever before: Fifty-four percent of the forum’s Global Shapers community of 50 leaders between 20 and 30 years old were female, for instance. Marino is a member of its foundation board.
As the forum’s discussions wrapped up, the WEF said delegates saw 2015 as a landmark year for progress in achieving gender parity, though not enough has been done. Among government officials at Davos, only 14 percent were women, while one in four academics was female, according to the WEF.
“The pace of change has been slow,” Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, said in an interview ahead of the event. She noted that the WEF’s research shows there has been little progress on gender inequality worldwide.
In the main congress center as hundreds of delegates milled about, Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, 32, a Nairobi-based lawyer who started Hoja Law Group in 2008, was preparing for a session with Eric Schmidt, Google Inc.’s chief executive officer, and a group of young leaders.
She said she didn’t notice many women on panels, or she saw a repetition of the same women, though she was encouraged by the focus on building female leadership skills.
For the first time this year, the WEF added a session addressing overall diversity, including integrating gays and lesbians into workplace leadership. Such efforts were lauded by participants including Sheila Lirio Marcelo, CEO and founder of Care.com, which matches people looking for domestic help with those looking for work.
“It’s not just about the debate between female-male leadership or minority groups in senior leadership, it’s about the economic argument for overall diversity,” said Marcelo, 44.
Progress was less visible on panels tackling subjects such as economics.
Sara Menker, attending the forum for the first time, said one panel on Africa’s growth markets she took part in included central bankers from the region. The participants were introduced by the moderator as “five bankers and a lady.”
Menker, who is 32 and CEO of data-analytics company Gro Intelligence, said, “Why not ‘five bankers and a CEO?’”
She said the fact that about 80 percent of her staff is female isn’t something she typically advertises.
“There’s something powerful in not bringing it up, but letting it happen,” said Menker. “We don’t say we’re a women- led company but a tech startup. There’s a stigma.”
Musiitwa said she didn’t feel she was in a minority, in part because walking around Davos’s congress center as a woman resembled her daily life. As she rode on the forum’s shuttle service to meetings at the hotels surrounding the main conference hall, men would introduce themselves as CEOs. The women would introduce themselves as wives.
“I’d say to the wife, ‘Yes, but what do you do?’” she said, citing an example of a wife who’d started her own business yet was attending as a spouse.
For Marino, Davos was chance to promote her own initiatives. She was involved in raising the subject of drug policy on a panel at the forum last year, and some of her current initiatives include shaping policy around drugs and Brazil’s high incarceration rate.
“Davos was certainly an impetus because of the exposure it gives you and the access,” she said. “It started as ‘the wife,’ but then in the years you get to know people and some of your opinions are heard.”
Nancy Joseph-Ridge, a physician who works at Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Inc., said one welcome trend was the growing number of women participating in sessions on science and technology.
“I’d say there were at least 30 percent women,” she said. “I was happy to see that. This is what we need.”
Meanwhile, Marino said that were it not for her husband or his organization, Itau Unibanco Holding SA, Latin America’s largest bank by market value, she would never have come to Davos.
Walking through a congress center teeming with executives, politicians and media, her husband, Ricardo Villela Marino, marveled at Patricia’s accomplishments at the forum: “She started as the wife, but now she’s more active here than I am!”
--With assistance from Cristiane Lucchesi in Sao Paulo.
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