The gender gap is still too wide

Women. Women in board rooms. Women in C suites. Women in public office. Women as partners in law firms. Women as university presidents. Women as officers in the military. Women ministers, priests and rabbis …

Last week, I attended a luncheon sponsored by Mount Mary College Women’s Leadership Institute. The keynote speaker, Marie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project, presented compelling research about the number of women who are missing from leadership tables of influence and decision making.

This article reflects much of the message shared during the luncheon. It’s the story we must tell over and over again until leadership is no longer defined by gender!

According to “The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership,” women account for only 18 percent of our top leaders and make 78.7 cents to every dollar earned by a man … a wage gap that increases with age.”

Research indicates that most Americans (nearly 89 percent) are comfortable with women as top leaders, and yet women are not leading in proportion to our numbers. Why?

In part, men and women make up a story that women already have equal opportunity with their male counterparts. We point to the one or two women on a corporate board; the one woman in the C suite; the handful of women who serve in public office. The real story of equality in leadership in this country will not be told until we have the courage to promote a critical mass of women into leadership.

Wilson challenged us to appreciate that we are not talking about change, we are talking about transformation. “Research has demonstrated that achieving critical mass (at least one third) of women in leadership is essential to moving beyond gender to the new agenda our nation needs,” she said.

Our country is in desperate need of a different kind of leadership. According to a Harvard Business Review analysis, a transformative leadership style, more often attributed to women, “has been found to be more effective in leading modern organizations than men’s transactional approach. Prominent research groups suggest that women ‘tend to include diverse viewpoints in decision making, have a broader conception of public policy, and are more likely to work through differences to form coalitions, complete objectives, and bring disenfranchised communities to the table.'”

Research clearly indicates that when women are present in significant numbers on corporate boards, the bottom line improves. “Fortune 500 companies with a high percentage of women officers experience a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than those with low percentages of women corporate officers.” (Catalyst study)

Advancing women into leadership is not a woman’s issue. Men and women will benefit.

This bears repeating: Men and women will benefit. If we are committed to building stronger communities, institutions and a stronger economy, Wilson said, “increasing women’s leadership is a an imperative. Advancing women serves us all – men and women, businesses and institutions alike.”

Make It happen

Transformation cannot occur until there is a commitment from top leadership to significantly increase the representation of women in top positions. Numbers matter.

Until we achieve critical mass at the table, the subtle and not so subtle sex role stereotyping will continue.

The White House Project recommends the following steps which have proven effective in increasing the progress of women into top leadership positions.

  • Work to achieve critical mass of women in leadership. A critical mass of one third is essential.
  • Use financial resources strategically. Consider supporting organizations that have men and women on boards and top leadership.
  • Amplify women’s voices in the public arena. A few years ago, tired of seeing white men repeated on community panels, I asked a client leader if he would be willing to refuse invitations to serve on community leadership panels that had no women representation. He was surprised by the request because it wasn’t something that he was conscious of as a white male. The good news is, he agreed to my request and has since only participated in panels that reflect diversity.
  • Collect and analyze the data. I would add: publish the names of institutions, businesses, etc. that have a critical mass of women in leadership.
  • Maintain accountability through setting targets. Impose consequences for not meeting targets.
  • Improve flexibility in workplace structures. Until there is adequate child care, some men and more women are restricted in their ability to assume leadership roles.

Inspired by another country’s courage

We learned at the leadership luncheon that in 2002, Norway passed legislation instructing publicly traded companies to have at least 40 percent female board members by 2005.

Not only have those organizations prospered, “Norway is enjoying prosperity, with a budget surplus and a ledger that is entirely debt free.”

Several women have begun a conversation asking one another what it would take to have similar legislation passed in this country. Stay tuned! Time is of the essence. We cannot wait!

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