Davos: Inside the minds of the most powerful women in the world

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Story highlights

  • CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow reports from Davos on the lack of female presence
  • Emma Watson made an impassioned speech at the forum about equal rights
  • High profile women including Sheryl Sandberg and Christine Lagarde also attended

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(CNN)Sitting down with Mastercard's President of International Markets, Ann Cairns, here at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was reminded how fortunate I am to cover this event each January.

I had already experienced two "Davos moments" in the Swiss mountain town: as I entered the congress center I passed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and then IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde.
    "You can have it all, despite what you're reading in all the magazines that you can't," Cairns told me as I interviewed her for CNN's Leading Women series.
    She's just one of many high-profile women attending WEF this year, and rejects the notion that working mothers can't have successful careers.
    Davos is a gathering of great minds and change-makers from across the globe, and its theme this year is "The New Global Context".
    The focus takes in everything from fighting terror to addressing the growing income divide. But this year just 17% of participants at this invitation-only summit are female; an increase on 15% in 2014, but still far too small a number.
    Meanwhile, on the Fortune 500 list, just 3.4% of corporations have female CEOs. Clearly, there is work to do.
    In 2010 WEF introduced a new policy allowing corporations to bring a fifth senior leader to the summit (as opposed to the general limit of four), as long as both men and women were in the delegation.
    Progress has been made with initiatives like this, but the event remains dominantly male.
    Emma Watson' made a passionate speech on female empowerment.
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    Facebook's VP of global marketing Carolyn Everson thinks change will come.
    She told Fortune, "In the coming years, the number of attendees who are women will rise, as the conversations that are taking place all around us today are going to fundamentally impact the path for women in the future."
    Based in London, Ann Cairns told me she believes the "U.S. is a few years ahead of Europe" in seeing women rise up the corporate ladder.
    "When it comes to corporate boards, she is torn on the question of whether or not there should be quotas.
    "I think it's a very difficult area, because I would like to see more women on boards. I would hate to think I got onto a board because of a quota, and I think most women would feel that way.
    "Is it moving fast enough? I think it could probably move faster."
    Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, explained why the World Food Program focuses so much on women. "Because women make the difference, in all the communities that we serve; even in our households, women have big voices."
    Cousin runs the $5.4 billion aid program -- but the path to her position was filled with hurdles.
    She recounted an experience in law school when she was given advice on how to excel in a job interview. "Ensure that your client doesn't see you as a woman," she was told, "because that was still seen as a detriment.
    "It was still seen that if you were a woman you would not have the ability to go into a courtroom and represent a client; that you needed to be sexless."
    Clearly she didn't take that advice. "I went in for a job interview. I wore a red coat dress; because I said if they're going to hire me it won't be because of what I'm wearing, and they need to know from the time I sit down in the chair to when I walk in the door that they're hiring a woman; a woman who is capable of performing the work."
    There's a lot of work -- game-changing work -- being done by the women here at WEF.
    This is a place that humbles just about everyone because it's hard to digest the caliber of many of the attendees and the magnitude of change for the better they are striving for.
    There are also remarkable men here focused on women. The youngest of the 1,500 business leaders from over 100 countries here is 22 year old Alain Nteff from Cameroon, who has created an app called Gifted Mom dedicated to the health of pregnant women. It is helping to lower the death rate among expectant mothers and newborns in his country.
    WEF's mission statement says it is "committed to improving the state of the world through public-private cooperation." And as Ann Cairns tweeted: "men and women make truly productive teams." Let's hope in the coming years they will also be equal in number.