Despite the progress made during the last century, in most places on Earth men continue to hold an overwhelming advantage. With few exceptions, when it comes to health, education, work, salaries, social status, and political power, women do not even come close to parity.

That was just one of the stark facts in play as Bryn Mawr College convened an international conference Thursday - "Heritage and Hope: Women's Education in a Global Context" - to help mark the 125th anniversary of the famed women's school.

From a global perspective, the statistics are indeed grim, beginning with genital mutilation and female infanticide. HIV drugs only reach half the mothers in need. Only 19 percent of parliamentary members worldwide are women. And although women now earn more than half the doctoral degrees in the United States, they remain woefully underrepresented in engineering, science, and math.

"In the 21st century, it is astonishing and inconceivable that little girls are dying for lack of nutrition when their brothers are being adequately fed," said college president Jane McAuliffe, "that there are these cultural and religious practices that are so barbaric."

So McAuliffe resolved last year to use her influence and connections to address such inequities. The timing was no accident, given the approaching anniversary.

As it turned out, the international conference McAuliffe organized and opened with remarks Thursday began in the same week as two other major conferences focusing on similar issues.

"I think we will look back at this fourth week in September as a turning point in the history of women's education," McAuliffe said on the Main Line campus.

Earlier in the week, former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative met in New York to strategize about empowering women and girls.

And the United Nations summit on millennium development goals ended Wednesday with the launch of a $40 billion plan to save the lives of 15 million women and children over the next five years.

Although the number of women's colleges in the United States has declined from nearly 300 in the 1960s to 60 today, academic leaders such as McAuliffe say the remaining single-sex schools play a vital role not only for American students but on the global stage.

Bryn Mawr has a long history of educating bright, forward-thinking leaders - it is the alma mater of scientists, authors, and judges, and winners of the Academy Awards and the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. But this conference, she said, is not a purely scholarly affair.

"We wanted a conversation that sweeps well beyond the borders of academia. In the 21st century, one of the things a women's college can do is to shine a spotlight on the continuing brutality and oppression that women suffer around the globe," she said.

McAuliffe, a graduate of a women's college - Trinity University in Washington - shifted her career into low gear to focus on raising her four children, then went on to earn her doctorate. She came to Bryn Mawr after serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University.

In her discussions with students, she said, they almost always ask about the challenge of juggling careers and children. "It's encouraging to see so many young couples balancing family responsibilities," she said. Although, relative to many other nations, women in America have tremendous opportunities, she said, the need for progress here is still vital.

McAuliffe, an Islamic scholar specializing in the Quran and the relationship between Christianity and Islam, said that in the pursuit of equality for women, there is a need to maintain respect for different cultures. It would be wrong, for example, to assume that Muslim women who wear veils are subservient to men.

"You have to tease out the diversity within the phenomenon," she said. "In the cityscape of Philadelphia, there are immigrant Muslim women, second-generation Muslim women, African American Muslim women. These are all different cultures. The veil, the hijab, the headscarf may carry different symbolic meaning within each social context."

On the Bryn Mawr campus, several students in headscarves could be seen in the crowd that gathered on the green at noon for the conference's start. Other girls wore T-shirts that read "The Ultimate Striving Machine," "Dolphin Research Center," and "BMW - Bryn Mawr Woman."

The events began with cake. Massive quantities of red velvet, pumpkin chocolate, vanilla, and lemon were served as an a capella group led a round of "Happy Birthday, Bryn Mawr." The first lecture was presented by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, a professor of history at Smith College, who reviewed how for centuries it was a scientific claim that women were biologically unfit for intellectual life.

Grace Barlow, a Bryn Mawr "freshwoman," missed the talk. "I've been getting a lot of e-mails about the conference," she said, but was not sure if she would be able to attend any of the sessions.

Barlow, 18, a Boston native, said that initially she had no intention of applying to an all-women's school. But after running into a student who persuaded her to visit and apply, she was sold. "It's so empowering to be around women who are diverse, but all intellectual," she said.

And though it's a women's school, she said, there are men just about everywhere. Bryn Mawr has a cooperative arrangement with Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges and the University of Pennsylvania. "There are men in almost all of my classes," she said. "Even Introduction to Ballet."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.