There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Women hold up half the sky." The great American novelist and humorist Mark Twain once asked rhetorically, "What would men be without women?" His answer: "Scarce, sir, mighty scarce."
Women have made huge strides in recent decades in the long and challenging quest for equality. In the United States, we see many more women in positions of power in government and business. Hillary Rodham Clinton narrowly missed in her recent bid for the presidency. Yet we still fall woefully short of the mark.
Today, smart businesses work incredibly hard to develop and retain their female employees and to listen and market to their female customers. The leaders who run these businesses know that the best and highest functioning of both our national and world economies will never come to pass until the day when women become fully empowered and engaged.
It is difficult to imagine that less than one hundred years ago women were not even allowed to vote in the United States. Since then, we have undeniably made enormous progress. Yet while women make up more than half of our labor force, as of mid-2009 only fifteen Fortune 500 companies (3 percent) had female CEOs. In Minnesota, only six of the state's top 100 public companies have female CEOs, and women hold only 15 percent of the executive officer positions in those 100 leading companies. The situation is far worse in other parts of the world.
In their powerful and heart-rending book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, the Pulitzer Prize winning husband and wife team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe what they characterize as the greatest human rights violation of our time: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world. The authors tell stories about three particularly horrific abuses: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, such as honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality, which claims one woman per minute in the developing world.
Their message, however, is not one of despair but of hope. They write, "Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: Women aren't the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more tragedy than an opportunity."
Kristof and WuDunn suggest that the answer to the problem lies in educating women and fully incorporating them into the economic life of their communities and countries. They describe the dramatic results in East Asia of what they call the "girl effect," saying, "Women are indeed a linchpin of the region's development strategy… These countries took young women who previously had contributed negligibly to gross national product and injected them into the economy, hugely increasing the labor force. The basic formula was to ease repression, educate girls as well as boys, give the girls the freedom to move to cities and take factory jobs, and then benefit from a demographic dividend as they delayed marriage and reduced childbearing. The women meanwhile… saved enough of their pay to boost national savings rates… Evidence has mounted that helping women can be a successful poverty-fighting strategy anywhere in the world, not just in the booming economies of East Asia."
Indeed, the data is insurmountable that fully including women in the workplace- especially in positions of leadership- results in superior economic outcomes. One study found that the one quarter of American Fortune 500 companies with the most female executives had a 35 percent better return on equity than the one quarter of companies with the fewest. Studies show that female executives generally tend to avoid unnecessary risk and focus patiently on the long term, while also bringing a more collaborative, conciliatory, and motivational leadership style, which is well-suited to today's less hierarchical workplace. Women will play an increasingly important future role, because in an era when new jobs will demand better educated workers, women now receive the majority of college and advanced degrees.
Women are a force to be reckoned with as customers as well. Companies that sell products as varied as consumer electronics, health care, and cars overlook women at their peril, because the woman of the house controls an astounding 83 percent of all consumer purchases.
Insightful and forward-looking companies focus on their female customers and also create positive work environments for their female workers, many of whom are striving mightily to balance professional and family obligations. These companies emphasize business outcomes rather than long hours in the office. At the Best Buy Company, a program called ROWE (results-only work environment) improved productivity in some departments by as much as 40 percent. In 2009, NetApp improved market share, avoided layoffs, and accumulated $2 billion in cash reserves, while still offering employees paid time off for volunteer work, adoption aid, and autism coverage. Biotech company Genentech saw revenues jump by 25 percent early last year, while featuring on-site daycare, a fitness center, and paid sabbaticals. Examples such as these are legion, and the economic case is undeniable.
Where does your organization, company, or team sit with respect to women? Do women possess a truly participatory voice, or are they underrepresented and marginalized? Are there women in leadership roles in your organization? Do you recognize the power of women as consumers of your products or services? Do you thoughtfully cultivate them as customers? If you answer no to these questions, then perhaps now is the time to do your part to make changes in your organization that will help bring us to the day when the feminine half of all who must together hold up the sky will be fully empowered and engaged.