In my previous career as a politician, I took for granted that most of my peers would be men. State legislatures continue to hover around 75 percent male membership; Congress, even after a “banner year,” stands at a woefully imbalanced 80 percent male legislators; and 90 percent of statehouses have male governors.
After leaving office, with those off-kilter figures in mind, I made it a priority to collaborate with former Ambassador Swanee Hunt to found Political Parity. Political Parity is a bipartisan project to understand why neither party—after 40 years of activism to train and support female candidates—has overcome the remaining obstacles to women’s equal participation in elected office. For me this project was about more than simply seeking women’s “fair share” of political voice. Political Parity was founded on the belief that a nation utilizing only 50 percent of its talent can never achieve its full capacity for greatness. Afghan women I know often cite the proverb that says, “A bird cannot fly with just one wing.” One has to wonder if some part of the trouble afflicting Washington today might be attributable to the female talent we have left on the table.
After Sheryl Sandberg gave her now famous TED talk that ignited the discussion about the dearth of women in C-level posts, I received an invitation from women who had decided to heed Sandberg’s advice and form a group to take action. The discussions were enormously eyeopening. As bad as things were for women in politics, women in business were arguably facing even greater hurdles to reaching the top echelons of corporate America. Recent studies show women CEOs lead just 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies and make up less than 15 percent of their executive officers. Even when entrepreneurial women make their own opportunities, the road to success is steep: Only about 4 percent of venture funding goes to companies run by women.
I recently had the honor of meeting with VentureFizz’s top 25 most influential Boston-based women in technology and innovation. What a dynamic group! Attending were representatives from the We Own It Summit, which sponsors an annual forum aimed at advancing women in high-growth businesses, and a women’s CEO group cleverly named SheEO, which provides a forum for women in entrepreneurial ventures to exchange expertise. And in this issue of Babson Magazine, we feature three outstanding women executives who have risen to this challenge and are making a positive impact on their companies (“Women in the C-Suite”).
Still, much needs to be done to support women who embrace the challenge of leading in the private sector. Whether in politics or business, we need to be using 100 percent of our talent.