Kelly Cartwright, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Kelly Cartwright, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

According to McKinsey Quarterly’s November 2012 report “The Global Gender Agenda,” companies are making progress in gender equality, yet the numbers remain disturbingly low when it comes to inclusion of women in business leadership.

  • “Women hold 15 percent of the seats on corporate boards and 14 percent of those on executive committees in the United States.”
  • “Norway’s representation is currently at 35 percent and 15 percent, respectively.”
  • And, that number is “less than 10 percent on both boards and executive committees in China, India and Japan.”

As a VP, I have my own perspective on this topic, and it begins with this: at its root, day-to-day business operations must be gender-blind. I don’t have woman in my title. The reality, however, is that gender politics are part of business. With that said, what follows are three ideas that I believe are part of the business case for the future of women in leadership.

1. The talent supply and demand equation is a great equalizer

The competition for critical talent, including specialized skills and leadership, remains high. The reason is simple: the talent supply in key areas is not keeping up with demand, and companies must do all they can to boost that supply. That makes a compelling business case for improving engagement with the female workforce and hiring women at all levels, including leadership. For context, here are BLS statistics from November 2012 on the relative numbers of men and women in the US civilian labor force:

  • Men, 20 yrs and over: 79,539
  • Women, 20 yrs and over: 69,897

Why should companies pay attention to women in leadership?  Is it because it’s a social obligation, a cultural push, or a nice thing to do?  Or is it because women represent more than 45% of the over-20  talent pool in a talent-scarce environment? The business case speaks for itself.

2. Women have established themselves as business leaders

Today, according to, only 19 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. Being a woman drew much attention to Marissa Mayer when she stepped into the lead role at Yahoo! What few people realize is that the history of women entrepreneurship and business leadership in the US goes back a long way.

A great short internet diversion to highlight this is 10 Remarkable Women Who Shaped U.S. Business History. They include a former slave who developed “a small real estate empire” in Los Angeles in the 1800s. There are more recent examples such as cosmetics leader Mary Kay Ash (who started her company at age 63) and late Katharine Meyer Graham, long-time publisher of The Washington Post. Today, a woman can set out to become a leader in business, and if she persistently puts the proverbial glass ceiling to the test, she will break through—but women in business leadership is not a new idea.

3. Corporate culture is evolving beyond the “work-life balance” cliché

One of the most curious terms we continue to hear, particularly in relation to women in the workforce, is an embrace of “work-life balance.”  In many ways, work-life balance is an obsolete concept and particularly misleading when it comes to the gender agenda. Many (myself included) have come to regard work and life as intertwined, even as we raise children and support our families. If our work is rewarding and fulfilling, then we are happy to go the extra mile. There is a book on the subject that reflects that idea, so I must not be alone in this thinking: Off Balance: Getting beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction by Mike Kelly.

Of course, the ideas behind work-life balance remain important. In fact, they are more important than ever, but I’m not joining a company to achieve work-life balance. I’m expecting work-life balance, but I’m working towards financial security, opportunity and fulfillment.  Those are the real values that companies must embrace and support for all of their workers, men and women alike.

The Biggest Challenge Remains: The Pace of Change

Great companies hire great people, so it’s natural that those most open to fostering leadership from the women who represent 45+% of the U.S. workforce will have an advantage over those that do not. Unfortunately, the pace of economic natural selection is slow, but the role of women in leadership is greater than at any time in history. Companies are doing what they do best: finding the right people to do the right job to drive the healthiest level of growth and profitability.  While natural competition will continue to drive the growing role of women in the workforce, great companies know that a conscious push for culture change is the only way to make progress at a meaningful pace.

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