Women hold up half the sky*, so how can I make sure I’m carrying my load?

It is with a degree of trepidation that I venture into this thought-territory, but I think as a 21st Century woman I have a responsibility to this emerging generation of women. The business and the not-for-profit sector would directly benefit from great women in positions of responsibility, but we (the women-folk) can also be better prepared for these roles, through formal and informal training, coaching and mentoring.

NGOs in countries that suffer from extreme poverty, religious fundamentalism and general chaos, see women and girls that are uneducated and marginalised. Yet it is commonly acknowledged that to change the future of these nations is to focus on women and girls as a crucial means to fight global poverty and extremism. As New York Times** put it, women aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

It is so easy for us in the so-called developed world to become complacent, yet we aren’t so good gender balance either. I just listened to the TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO entitled Why we have too few women leaders. In the US women comprise 13% of parliament and have 15% representation on for-profit boards and 20% on not-for-profit boards.

There is now research that tells us of the benefits of women in leadership positions:

Correlation between high number of female senior executives and stronger financial performance (McKinsey)

Three women or more on a board makes a defining difference (Fortune 1000)

Fortune 500 companies with more women on their boards turned in better financial performances than those with fewer female directors (2007 Catalyst Report)

Companies with gender diversity outperformed their sector in terms of return on equity, operating result and stock price growth (McKinsey)

And in Australia’s top 200 companies only 8% of key executives and directors are women  (2007 Catalyst Report)

So what can each of us personally do, at least within our own sphere of influence?

Sheryl Sandberg offers three very practical points:

  1. Sit at the table. We tend to underestimate our capabilities. So when offered opportunities to participate, engage and shine.
  2. Make your partner [spouse] a real partner. Couples with equal earning and equal responsibility have half the divorce rate.
  3. Don’t leave before you leave. We often make plans far in advance and quietly back away instead of maintaining the momentum until it’s time to leave (such as maternity leave).

In any situation in life there are things we can do and others beyond our control. I can’t personally make an immense difference to the top companies in Australia or around the globe, but I can improve my own skills and encourage and mentor other women.

What can you do? (At least watch the TED Talk)

*Old Chinese saying

** Saving the World’s Women, 17 Aug 2009, nytimes.com/2009/8/23/23Women-t.html

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