Linda Tarr-Whelan: Meeting Obama’s challenge for girls

The President’s challenge for all of us to create the country that 9-year old Christina Taylor Green thought we had when she made the fateful trip to hear her elected representative rings true to me. Christina had an ambition to be the first girl to play in the major leagues. Tragically it’s a chance she won’t have. It made me think about what are the chances for all those bright girls across our country to become the leaders we need?

There is an “off-the-radar” issue we must address to provide girls with a meaningful roadmap to meet Obama’s challenge by opening up the doors to women becoming leaders. Our complacency that “we are the best” and that “women’s equality is a done deal” masks a murky picture of reality.

While both parties fielded women candidates for high office in 2008, the political ladder remains a pretty closed shop. Despite fine women like Rep. Giffords, our progress report is dismal; we are backtracking rather than moving ahead on women’s representation. Congressional representation of women has slipped downward, leaving the U.S. as an unenviable 72nd in the world. Numbers are important, but the big picture is we are missing the benefits of new thinking and consensus-building skills that women bring to the table.

It isn’t just politics and government where our promises of “you can be whatever you want to be” are overblown. In a series of informal focus groups with women of all races, ages and economic status from coast-to coast, women told me we are only half-way to achieving full equality because “our talent is untapped.” They are right — half of the good ideas are not heard when decisions are made.

Other countries are taking a different approach. Recently, the French Assembly passed legislation to reach a 40 percent target of women on France’s corporate boards in six years. France joined Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Finland, Australia, Israel and Iceland in dramatically shoring up the leadership of their corporate sectors by tapping the value of women’s talent.

The business pattern of having overwhelmingly male boards who appoint more men certainly diminishes the chances for women to succeed. The conservative male sponsor of Norway’s legislation held that if they kept appointing the hunting and fishing buddies of the current board members, their corporations would not be competitive. In 2010, the only large U.S. firm to have 40 percent women on their board was General Motors. Across the Fortune 500, the gender make-up of corporate boards has been stagnant for five years.

Why is it imperative to open up the power tables? Companies are more profitable when there’s a critical mass of 30 percent or more women on their boards. Women add 21st century management skills around team building and partnerships, make decisions in a more “risk-aware” fashion, prioritize family and work solutions which increase productivity, and decrease turn-over. More women at the table can open up organizations to maximize their competitive advantage in the search for talent.

Surely, quotas are unlikely here, but that’s no excuse for inaction. Forward-thinking countries and companies realize and act on two big ideas – economic viability takes talent and the value-added talent is “womenpower.” That is certainly true here. Ask yourself a few questions: Who is starting businesses in this jobless recovery? Women. Who is getting the education needed for a knowledge-based economy? At every level from high school to PhD programs women are graduating in equal or greater numbers than men (and have been in most cases for over a decade). Who are the consumers? Overwhelmingly, women.

We need a White House Roundtable to bring attention to the potential of balanced leadership. The Joint Economic Committee should hold hearings to explore what we are missing. Investors should withhold their proxy from all-male slates and tell management why. Search committees should refuse to accept “final” pools of candidates that don’t include women. Political parties should lead – along with dynamic women’s organizations – to recruit and support women candidates.

Concentrating on the future for girls to be leaders can create the climate to remove barriers and benefit society. If we really want the promise of “you can be whatever you want to be” to be realistic, sensible actions are needed. Our talented girls want a future where their families have both economic security and the good care they need to thrive.

We have an unfinished agenda to meet President Obama’s challenge for the girls of the United States. Complacency has its price, even in a great nation.

Linda Tarr-Whelan is a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow on Women’s Leadership and a former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

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