World's elite gathers for Davos 2014

Where were all the women in Davos?

The under-representation of women at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos has been one of the more obvious elephants in the room.

At an event where Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, one of the most unequal developed nations when it comes to female representation in the workforce, pledged that "women will shine" as part of his economic policies, the proportion of women attending has fallen to 15 percent from 17 percent in 2011. Only 16.9 percent of board seats on Fortune 500 companies are held by women, and they are often the only people with two X chromosones on the board.

Site of the 2014 WEF annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

(Read more: Davos 'excess'? Not where I'm sitting)

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and chief operating officer of Facebook, told the conference at a BBC event: "There's a chicken and egg going on. We need better public and corporate policies. We need more women in leadership roles to get those policies."

Of course, Davos is reflective of a broader problem of underrepresentation of women on boards.

"WEF can't manufacture CEOs," Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, a group of the most powerful women in the world, and a senior advisor to Goldman Sachs, told CNBC.

"Their delegates are reflective of who's on boards."

Liswood argued that women need to stop "ritual mitigation" by being afraid to make their opinions clear—but that their bosses also need to stop thinking that women who put themselves forward are pushy.

It is also important that women stop "subsidising" their male partners' ambitions—and that the social policies are in place to enable them to do so, she said.

(See: Scenes from global elite's exclusive ski retreat)

Much of the debate was focused on women in the developed world, who are often in much stronger positions than those in emerging markets.

"Women around the world are key in raising their families out of poverty," Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former deputy President of South Africa, pointed out.

In the corporate world, part of the problem is that "leadership is associated with masculine expectations," according to Sandberg.

"People have archetypes of what leaders look like," Liswood said.

One controversial potential solution for this is boardroom quotas for female representation, often viewed as a blunt instrument for dealing with the problem.

Davos 2014: Roundup of big events

Quotas for board representation were endorsed by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

"I was strongly against it until I grew up in a big international law firm where the number of women was so low. Unless we have those targets and quotas we won't take the right steps," Lagarde said.

Boards need more than one women so they don't get accused of tokenism—and so that those women are able to make their views heard, according to Liswood.

Emma Marcegaglia, president of Business Europe and co-chief executive of Italian steel company Marcegaglia Group, which her father founded, described her experience to CNBC.

"At the beginning, they looked at me thinking 'What is she going to do?' If you show that you know what you are doing and that you are tough, they will respect you," she said.

--By's Catherine Boyle.