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Strong Female Lead

Four Signs That We're Near A Turning Point For Women In Leadership

Gloria Feldt says there's now more opportunity than ever to close the gender leadership gap, but not if we don't act.

[Photo: a katz via Shutterstock]

In 2008, just when it seemed that Americans might elect our first female president (feeling a bit of déjà vu?), Elle magazine asked me to write about women running for office. The implication was that with Hillary Clinton aiming for the top job, women would follow her example and clamber up political ladders all across the country.

But they didn’t, and that hasn’t changed in the nearly eight years since Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. Women are still roughly half as likely as men to think seriously about running for political office (and require more prodding and seek out preparation before they do), whereas men just do it.

While it's a similar story in the business world, there are now opportunities for real change that didn't exist even eight years ago. We just need to seize them.

Inflection Points For Women Leaders

Women comprise almost half the U.S. workforce and mid-management positions before thinning out at the upper ranks. For years, the share of women in leadership roles has been stalled at less than 20% across all sectors. We also earn some 20% less than men with comparable experience, expertise, and titles.

I’ve been an advocate for women for four decades, but it had never occurred to me that once new doors opened, women wouldn’t rush through them. I was shocked. One reason for that disparity is the ambivalence toward power and the intention to lead that women in our culture learn.

It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it; stereotyping, explicit threats, implicit bias, fear of losing roles where we’re comfortable even though they limit us, and organizations designed for men by men who have wives at home all conspire to slow our pace toward parity in leadership. By various estimates, we will reach it anywhere from 69, 90, to 500 years from now at the current rate.

But today, we're faced with a handful of what former Intel CEO Andy Grove once termed "strategic inflection points," circumstances that require us "to make a fundamental change in business strategy," because "nothing less is sufficient."

If we don't act on them now, in other words, the pace of progress will remain as agonizingly slow as many predict. Here are four strategic inflection points we all need to act upon today in order to secure a world with more women leaders in our own lifetimes.

1. Justice Makes Dollar Sense

For me, gender parity is a matter of simple justice. But fairness alone rarely wins the day.

It’s amazing how quickly things can change when it becomes clear that having more women in leadership makes more money. A Denver University benchmarking study underscores how women leaders help improve companies' bottom lines. Diversity simply generates better ideas and more innovation. But leadership and strategy consultant Doug Sundheim has uncovered important differences among men and women in perceived and actual risk-taking. For companies (at least in certain cases) it may even be that women’s greater risk-aversion can help counterbalance the riskier impulses men are taught to nurture, and that stress exacerbates.

What’s more, women buy 80% of consumer goods and services. They gravitate toward providers that authentically appeal to their interests—which includes hiring women at all levels, influencing everything from product design to promotion. In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that gender equality could add $12 trillion to the global economy. When there's gender parity in leadership, the world will be a more just place for men and women alike. Fortuitously, it will also be a more profitable one.

2. Passion—And Preparation To Match

Women now earn 57% of college degrees, which means that companies that don’t hire women into leadership roles leave some of the best-educated talent to their competitors.

Despite all the handwringing over work-life balance, the truth is that what women really want in their work is power—not power over others, but the power to use their talents and expertise to succeed in a field they’re passionate about. And they’re more prepared and better credentialed than ever to do just that.

3. More Role Models And Mentors

The adage that "if you can see it, you can be it" is true. As the Women's Media Center has documented, despite some progress, women are too often not seen, heard, or in charge of which stories are told about them in the media. Yet they're finding ways to make their voices heard and secure the mentors role models they need.

The Op Ed Project has helped to nearly double the percentage of opinion pieces written by women in major publications. Women still use social media primarily for connecting with friends, but are now also as likely as men to use LinkedIn and other professional networking platforms.

The proliferation of mentoring opportunities for women, such as LeanIn circles, Glassbreakers, and a plethora of local networking groups, are the modern female equivalent of the golf game and old boys' club.

4. Genders Meet On The Same (Digital) Planet

Though some "Mars-Venus" communication differences remain, many other gender norms are finally converging—at home as well as in the workplace. Women’s employment is now the norm to which the single-paycheck family is becoming the exception. And it's more common than ever for both partners to bring home the bacon and participate in childcare and housework (though parity is still elusive there, too).

That makes many traditional organizational structures passé. Paid parental leave is galloping forward; last year saw a flurry of leading tech companies rewrite their paid leave policies in order to better accommodate working parents. More companies should follow suit.

In the months and years ahead, affordable quality childcare will become the next frontier in modernizing benefits for working families. Companies like Salesforce, for instance, that commit to leaching the implicit bias out of pay and promotions will be the ones best positioned to succeed.

It’s no wonder these shifts are occurring now. Many of the very technologies we’ve developed to help us work more productively are helping us work more flexibly, too. Time spent in the office is now less important to managers than simply getting the job done. That isn’t just reshaping the expectations—and in some cases directly benefitting—professional women. It’s steadily changing what all modern workers require of their working lives.

Today's working parents have greater leeway than any before them to step out to catch their kid's soccer game or drive to the dentist during normal office hours without jeopardizing their employment. As more economic power accrues to women, and as remote and flexible-work tools expand in the process, this realignment in working values will continue apace.

Women’s biggest challenge in the 20th century was to change laws and open doors. Our challenge in the 21st is to walk through those doors with big intentions. And we must each bring other women along on that journey. If women embrace the power we already possess, we can take full advantage of this rare moment of strategic inflection. We can turn a potential tipping point into the long-overdue reality.

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