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Women in leadership means good business

One of the most compelling reasons for an organization to pay attention to the demographic makeup of its workforce is that a diverse employee base can have significant bottom-line impact.

Yet, when the issue is workplace gender balance and actualizing women's economic and leadership potential, the United States trails behind less developed countries.

According to Alison Maitland and Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, co-authors of Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of our next Economic Revolution, the U.S. has adopted purely private-sector initiatives to get more women into senior leadership in the corporate world and lacks any kind of public policy or infrastructure for working families.

"Basically, if women want to get to the top of the corporate world, they are forced into a choice between having a family or having a career," said Maitland, an independent business writer and conference moderator and former journalist at the Financial Times. "Other cultures, for example, in Europe, will look at the American way of doing things and regard the cost of getting to the top or having a successful career in the private sector as rather high if it means having to sacrifice having a family. You need public policy pushes, strong public policy support and public infrastructure to support working families. You also need, crucially, very strong private-sector corporate initiatives to get more women into senior jobs to retain women and get them into leadership."

Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland said companies that succeed in the 21st century will realize the full potential of women and make the necessary investments to nurture their talent. That means not doing what has been done in the past: adopting a "fix the women" mentality that encourages, develops, trains and supports women to become more like the dominant norm.

"Companies have spent perhaps the last 20 years very kindly and well meaningfully sending women on leadership programs, assertiveness training, developing them in all kinds of ways so that they might behave, sound and act a little bit more like what (organizations) wanted a leader to sound like," said Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consultancy 20-First. "We're suggesting a more constructive approach going forward. Given the majority of the educated talent pool coming up today is women, it's not a question of training a small minority to adapt to the dominant norm. It's about training everybody to understand the differences and being able to manage organizations so that cultures evolve to get the most out of both halves of the population."

Maitland said companies often invest a fortune to get managers to understand the languages of the emerging powerhouses around the world, such as Russia, China, India and Brazil but invest nothing to understand the differences in language and approach between men and women in their own workforces.

"There are three key drivers why businesses are interested in women today: leadership, talent and markets. It becomes kind of an unavoidable discussion once you line it up this way," Wittenberg-Cox said. "There is now data and studies to prove that more women in leadership means better bottom-line performance. Fortune 500 companies with the most women at the top have a 35 percent higher return on shareholder return to equity, and a Catalyst study showed boards with more than three women on them have an 83 percent higher return to shareholder value than boards without women."

"It's not about women taking over everything," Maitland said. "It's about having gender balance because that really does seem to tie into much greater profitability and striking performance financially."

"That's the leadership piece, number one," Wittenberg-Cox said. "Number two is talent. Sixty percent of university graduates today in Europe and North America are women, and it's going up. Are companies really recruiting, attracting, retaining and promoting the best possible talent if they're recruiting and promoting 80 percent men? The math doesn't line up."

[About the Author: Kellye Whitney is managing editor for Talent Management magazine.]