Monday, March 03, 2008

Moving Women From Benchwarmers to Captains

By Linda Tarr-Whelan

Sometimes progress is measured by half-court movements. When I was in school, girls played basketball by different rules than the boys. We played on a half-court and could only dribble three times before passing the ball. Girls were regarded as too fragile to run the distance. Now, tell that to the women in the WNBA.

It's good to measure positive change, like women’s full court professional basketball. Recognizing these changes is what we celebrate in March as Women's History Month. But I'm done with simply celebrating where we've been. Instead, it's time to look at March as more a celebration of our future: let’s call it “Women Making History Month.”

Old stereotypes still stand in our way. Even today, only two-thirds of adults in this country think a woman could be president, according to a CNN/Opinion Research survey. Meanwhile, state legislatures -- the farm teams for future leaders -- have only one-quarter representation by women, a pitiful ratio that has remained unchanged for a decade. The U.S. ranks 69th in the world for women's legislative representation with only 16 percent women in Congress.

We’re missing a lot and it doesn't have to be this way. The leaders of some countries have realized that it really does matter who makes the decisions. They see what our leaders have not yet recognized: having more women at the top is good business and smart politics. For example, in Norway, women make up 36 percent of the members on corporate boards, while in the U.S. progress seems stalled at not quite 15 percent. How did Norway they do it? In 2003, Norway passed a tough law that requires all public companies to ensure that their boards are 40 percent women. By 2007, 85 percent of their public companies met the mark.

Smart leaders in Norway and other countries that focus on tapping the talents of women realize that the talent base of the future is at least half women. In an increasingly competitive world, no business or nation that fails to tap that talent is likely to succeed. We need to play catch-up and focus on women's advancement as a key part of our competitiveness. The World Economic Forum ranks women’s advancement by country, the U.S. has now fallen to 31st.

What an irony, then, that in the U.S., the talent pipeline is filled with women. By 2010, women are expected to hold 60 percent of the nation's wealth. Since 1996, a higher proportion of women than men have graduated from college, and the trend-line is only expected to accelerate. But we'll continue to waste a lot of that talent unless we transform our outmoded model of "only men need apply" leadership.

One way to tap our wellspring of female talent is to have a critical mass of women in decision-making positions. They bring new ideas and networks to reach the new talent; that offers the promise of no more excuses about a lack of “qualified women." When women decision-makers join the ranks of men in similar positions, the bottom-line results improve for shareholders and stakeholders.

More women at the table and in the corner offices helps to shape the future; a modernized policy agenda emerges to address lagging issues like the wage gap and supports for working families. One major payoff to society is the stronger families that result from a cultural shift to a definition of personal success that encompasses earning, caring and care-taking. Ultimately, more women joining the ranks of decision-makers will make us more competitive as we leave the past behind and utilize the creativity, energy and skill of more of our citizens.

How do we move into a better future? Decision-makers must ensure that there are women in every pool of candidates for every position from supervisor to CEO. Political parties and public officials must develop goals and timetables to get more women into political office; 101 other countries in the world already do it. Women who have made it need to unapologetically wedge the door open for other qualified women, particularly younger ones.

This March, it is not enough to look backwards. Women in the United States have plenty more to accomplish; we plan to make history, in the best sense of that phrase. But the mindset that "American women are doing fine, thank you" clouds the reality that we need more women at the top to make the tough calls.

Playing by different rules that undervalue women's contributions has no place in basketball, business or politics.

Women's future and the country's future are the same. Let's celebrate that -- and go make some history.
Tarr-Whelan is a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank and a former Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

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