It's a tragic twist of fate to read a headline that begins "Women Are Now Equal" and follows with "As Victims of Poor Economy" -- especially when you've been an advocate for women's issues for more than thirty years. But yesterday's article in the New York Times is yet another stark reminder of the challenges we are currently facing as a nation, and begs the lingering question, "What are we going to do about it?"
The Congressional study that the Times references reports that women are not just leaving the workforce due to work-family balance, as is often surmised, but because of the same economic issues that men are confronting: declining salaries, factory closures, and rising transportation costs that are cutting their earnings dramatically. If we add that to the soaring costs in healthcare, energy, and food, the ever-increasing rates of foreclosure, and the shaky state of Wall Street, women and men really are approaching equality when it comes to the economic downturn -- though it is men that are catching up (or down, as it were) to where women have been on the economic totem pole (white women still make 77 cents for every white male dollar, African-American women 63 cents and Latinas 52 cents). Given the straits we now find ourselves in, perhaps the time has come when men and women can finally share equally in achieving one important goal: repairing our broken economy.
For ten years I have traveled the US speaking about the urgent need to increase the numbers of women in leadership, across all employment sectors. What I find is that most people (women and men) don't realize how few women actually occupy positions of leadership at present -- nor do they realize the benefits we could reap by putting them there.
People are astonished to hear that in the last decade the US has moved from being 47th in the world in women's political representation to a dramatically lower 71st. They marvel when I tell them we are only 16% of congress, and the same percentage of the corporate boards of US companies. They are in disbelief when I say we have been stuck at the same level for well over a decade in our percentage of the state legislature (between 21-23%) and gasp when they hear that it will take us over 70 years to achieve parity in our board rooms and in Congress if we continue at the current pace.
We simply cannot afford this gender gap any longer -- least of all as we struggle to fix a flagging economic state of affairs. Women have innovative solutions to bring to the tables of power and influence -- and they are solutions that are in desperate need. Having been on the receiving end of economic, social, and political inequality for much of human history, they are well-equipped to devise strategies that can turn our economy around. Women are behind the living wage campaigns and microenterprise strategies that have become so popular in their proven effectiveness, and which represent some of the only innovative public policies in the last two decades to address economic downturn and disenfranchisement.
Women have always been disproportionately impacted by economic distress; they are the first ones to lose their jobs in times of economic hardship, and the primary caretakers and solution-finders for their families in cash-strapped times. Just as women in Congress fight for legislation to protect women and families, women leaders on the economic front are more likely to be looking out for other women and families, an "interest group" that brings huge benefits society as a whole.
It's urgent that we address the issue of women as a resource in our economic system now. While they are leaving for reasons defined in the aforementioned Congressional report, women are also departing the workplace because they are tired of challenging its inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. Women want to work differently; they know the social and economic benefits a revamped workplace could bring, but are not in the positions of power to make those changes happen. And so we are losing the very transformational leadership we so desperately need at this difficult time in our nation's economy. As a top male CEO recently confided, those who are leaving are some of the most talented women we have.
As I have noted in the past, other countries have far surpassed us in recognizing women's worth in the realm of business -- and their appreciation of women's business savvy has been rewarded in their bottom lines. We sorely need to learn these lessons, and learn them quick, before we plummet even further down this economic downward spiral.
Years ago, John Naisbitt wrote in Megatrends that the railroads failed because they thought they were still in the railroad business, neglecting to recognize that they were instead engaged in the transportation trade. When we think of putting more women in leadership, supporters and detractors alike too often think we are in the gender business. But propelling women into positions of leadership has less to do with adding women for women's sake, and much more to do with the business of transformation -- an enterprise to which we need to bring every last one of our assets.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, "It's a wonder the republic has done as well as it has when it's only used half its resources." That century-old musing of our nation's noted suffragette is just as apt today, if not more so. In the face of such daunting economic challenges, our country is desperate for new thinking, new initiatives, and new leadership. The republic, to reference Stanton, has seen better times. We simply cannot continue to ignore the same resources that Stanton saw go untapped: the half of our population that is women. If we do, the U.S. risks going down the same path as the railroads, and becoming obsolete in the face of a changing, global era.
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).