Linda Tarr-Whelan: Balanced leadership makes us stronger
Column by Linda Tarr-Whelan
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I began my career as nurse in 1960, only to be fired on my first day because I didn’t stand up for a doctor. It didn’t matter that I was inserting an IV line for a patient. In those days, showing deference to men – and virtually all doctors were men – took precedence. Now we know that the best patient outcomes are achieved by balance and synergy – it takes women and men, doctors and nurses as members of health teams to achieve optimal results.
It’s beginning to dawn on society that women are the talent base for the future. They’re the force behind consumer spending and the drivers of small-business development. Women in every profession are trained, experienced and ready to add their individual and collective strength to business and political decision-making. Yet when it comes to balanced leadership, we’re stuck in a rut.
We rightfully celebrate “first women” like Katherine Bigelow, who this year became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar in the Academy Awards’ 82-year history. But our celebrations mask the stark reality and expose our complacency. We tend to gloss over the real picture. Geena Davis, working to see more women behind the cameras as filmmakers, writers and directors, reminds us that we’ve been in exactly the same place for 46 years.
There’s a stiff cost when only half of the nation’s talent pool is tapped for leadership. And data for politics are similar to data for Hollywood. Congress now includes 17 percent women, which means the U.S. trails 82 other countries in proportion of women in political leadership. Women partners in law firms hover at the 16 percent level; in the nonprofit world the proportion is 20 percent, with fewer and fewer women in management as organizations grow larger. Women in the religious community call it the “stained-glass ceiling,” with larger congregations much more likely to have men giving the weekly message. Corporate boards are stalled at about 15 percent.
Measuring where we are is important, but this is more than a numbers game.
There is a different conversation going on around the world. Instead of congratulating themselves on the progress women have made, male leaders worldwide are joining with women in serious discussions about leadership needed for the future — and then they’re taking bold actions. Their shared goal is to reach the “30 Percent Solution” – the tipping point for balanced leadership. Why? It’s not for justice or human rights. Instead, the motivator is a simple: Balanced leadership yields better results. Also, it’s well-recognized that no significant progress is made on women’s issues in any country unless the government is made up of at least 30 percent women. The U.S. federal government is made up of 17 percent women, which explains why we have had such a difficult time moving forward.
Results across various industries, sectors of society and political systems are consistent. With balanced leadership, companies make greater profits, become more risk-aware and determine their course of action with a longer time frame. The 30 Percent Solution opens the door for more women to bring their talents, creativity and knowledge to making the right decisions for society. Twenty-first century management requires teamwork, partnerships, relationships and consensus-building –- a comfortable fit for women leaders. Simply put, we cannot afford to leave half of our talent outside the door.
While in London on tour for my book, I was overwhelmed with the rapidly changing environment in European political and business circles. In the United Kingdom, both the Conservative and Labour parties are short-listing women candidates, and 43 of the FTSE 100 top CEOs are personally mentoring women for board seats. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has introduced legislation that follows the Norwegian example of modernizing boards of directors to include 40 percent women. Recent studies show that French financial firms with a significant representation of women on their boards better weathered the most recent downturn.
We are overdue for a vigorous public debate in the U.S. about women being our most underutilized national resource. We must put aside old myths and stereotypes that stand in the way of progress. McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, has concluded that the U.S. gross domestic product would be 9 percent higher if we maximized women’s talents. Think of that — 9 percent higher GDP. To get there will take cultural change and attention to the winning strategy of the 30 Percent Solution. Women and men must work together to bring about these changes.
Linda Tarr-Whelan is a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow on Women’s Leadership. Her book, Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World, was published in 2009. She is the former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.