Last week marked the 22nd anniversary of the glass ceiling's entrance into our vernacular -- a phrase which cleverly described the invisible but extensive impediments to women's ascent into positions of senior leadership. Over two decades have passed since we gave the problem a name, and while women's collective gains in politics, business, media, and culture have created a spider's web of cracks, shattering the ceiling once and for all remains an elusive goal.
In her recent piece for the New York Times, Sharon Reier examined shifts in policy and culture that have brought women's senior leadership to the fore across the corporate boards of European businesses. Norway, who instituted a law requiring companies to fill 40 percent of corporate board seats with women in 2003, has met their goal, and similar legislation has passed in Spain, with the goal to be met in 2015. And while these laws are being passed, Europe is simultaneously addressing the institutional barriers for women's equal participation. There, as in the U.S., the long-held preference for former or sitting CEOs has been a restrictive force for women, as few have attained the senior executive positions that lead toward board candidacies. But change is on the horizon: In the Netherlands, a voluntary charter is now being presented to corporations to commit to propelling women into these senior leadership positions, and Norway has instituted a mentoring program and forum for aspiring women board members.
Clearly, Europe ahead of the learning curve on this front: in a 2007 study by Catalyst , which examined the financial results of 520 companies over a four-year period, it was found that companies with the highest numbers of women board directors outperformed those with the lowest. While European nations are bringing parity to their businesses, their gains are being measured in terms of both talent and the bottom line.
This raises some interesting questions for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. For example, as the Euro keeps rising and the dollar keeps falling, will our corporations finally begin to realize that a diverse board is a strong board? Or that the qualities that women leaders offer can catapult a corporation to a heightened level of performance and profit? In this month's Portfolio, Harriet Rubin reminds us that, "in the early and mid-1990s, the number of female appointees to Fortune 500 boards steadily increased. But since then, progress has slowed," stalling in 2007 at just 14.8 percent. Though many of the U.S.'s top companies have instituted programs to advance their female employees, women are still widely underrepresented in the boardroom. And if you pay any attention to the economy, it looks like our business sector could really benefit from a few good women.
At The White House Project, we work to propel a critical mass of diverse women into positions of leadership. And through our Corporate Council, we bring together senior executive women who are active agents of change within their organizations, to close the leadership gap in the business sector. The Council deepens the impact of these women leaders and builds their authority by raising their visibility, fostering expansive networks, and developing strategic initiatives to permanently alter the composition of the corporate sector.
This remarkably talented, intelligent, and ambitious group of women represent some of our nation's top companies who are committed to propelling women into leadership. They know that's good business from any angle. But how many more years will it take for the rest of corporate America to catch up?
In the fall of 2008, The White House Project and Corporate Council will be releasing a landmark report, entitled "Benchmarking Women's Leadership: A Report Card on the Leadership Gap in America." Assessing the current and future status of women in leadership across sectors, the study delivers fascinating research on women's status, from sports and film to business and politics.
Unfortunately, what the report clearly conveys is women's vast under-representation at the top ranks of every field surveyed. And that the long-term goal of shattering the glass ceiling once and for all looms far in the distance: by current rates of change, it could take decades, and in some cases, centuries, before women achieve parity with men in leadership.
There are great benefits to propelling women into leadership across sectors. When women make advances in politics, the corporate arena follows suit. Our governments become more representative, our policies more expansive, and our businesses more profitable. And when the public views more women as experts while watching their daily news, cultural perceptions of what a leader looks like shifts dramatically.
There is a common root to the lack of top women across sectors: a culture that does not fully embrace women as leaders. But a society which does not tap half of its natural resources is operating at half of its potential -- and the repercussions are rearing their ugly heads in the dwindling states of our economy, our politics, and perhaps, our culture. As we envision a better future for our nation, I advise that we heed the lesson that Europe has been learning: that adding women does, in fact, change everything.
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).