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No Time Like Now -- The Best Election in History for Women

04/13/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's on! Hillary Clinton is now officially running for president, thus launching what is certain to be 18 months of relentless punditry, commentary and discussion of every conceivable issue relative to women, women's leadership, women's wardrobes, etc! Just the thought of it is enough to make you want to keep the TV off for the next two years. But for working women, of both parties, no matter who you may support for president, Hillary's 2016 campaign may very well represent one of the biggest opportunities in history to have working women's issues and interests advanced.

When Hillary ran in 2008, women's issues took a back seat in the campaign. Seven years ago it wasn't at all clear that being a woman, embracing the historic firsts of breaking the highest glass ceiling was a good strategy. I had the opportunity to ask Hillary directly at a campaign event in 2007 about how she, as a women leader, would be different and she completely avoided answering the question. She likely feared that focusing too much on gender would alienate voters. Today it's a different story. Hillary now talks openly about breaking ceilings and her approach to leadership as a woman. Why now and not then? Timing is everything. Last year Lean In sold 1.6 million copies. Beyoncé danced in front of a giant sign reading "Feminist." Eighty two percent of Americans say women should be socially, politically and economically equal. Women at every level, perhaps most especially professional, college educated women are standing up and advocating for themselves, women's priorities and the women around them.

Professional women are especially fired up -- they're leading in unprecedented ways and breaking barriers. They also have a hugely heightened sense of the remaining challenges to their full participation and leadership at work and in the country. Women are 60 percent of the college graduates but also more than of 60 percent of the minimum wage earners. They are in the pipeline to leadership in extraordinary numbers but not breaking through at the executive or board level. They are leading at home as primary breadwinners and decision makers yet 1 in 4 women is also a victim of domestic or sexual violence. Women everywhere are ready for change.

Every presidential election since 1980 has been decided on women's votes. Women are more likely than men to be registered and more likely to turn up at the polls. Leaders of both parties know this and they are working overtime to figure out how to appeal to women voters. Professional women across the country who have the income, influence and energy to make a major difference in this election are asking tough questions about how to close the most important remaining gender gaps. They want answers about why the gender wage gap persists, what can be done to break the last barriers at work and how we can get more women on boards. Whatever you think of Hillary, her role in the race will most certainly trigger huge public debates around these and other remaining barriers for women. It's no accident that in her video announcing her candidacy the ad profiled a women retiring, a woman job hunting, a women going back to work after a baby and a pregnant woman about to have a baby.

Of course, Hillary is not the only candidate who will talk about creating greater opportunity and leveling the playing field for women and that's exactly the point. Republicans will also work to appeal to women and argue for women's advancement but they will likely emphasize that not every issue can be legislated. Women like Carly Fiorina, who may also be running, will talk about the economic opportunities for women and why you can support women yet disagree on the solutions. One way or another, regardless of what happens in the race more attention is likely to be paid to women and women's issues in this election than we've ever seen before. The attention alone could change the game.

As a small but meaningful example, in 2011 in the UK, a government commission was formed to look at the gender gap on UK FTSE boards. The commission was extremely high profile and became front-page news when it recommended that diversifying UK boards was so important to the stability of the nation's economy, companies should change their ways or face legislative action. It became a hotly debated political issue. While many countries in Europe passed quota laws, it was unlikely to ever pass in the UK. Even so, the national attention and heated public debate spurred a long list of companies to take voluntary action. The results have been dramatic. With support and engagement from organizations like the 30 Percent Club, in three years UK boards have doubled the number of women serving on them.

We have a similar opportunity with the coming election cycle. If we're lucky, the focus on women, on what it might mean to have a woman in the White House, on the role women play at work, at home and in our society will elevate our collective appreciation for and focus on what needs to change. It may spur companies to focus even more on voluntary actions to benefit women. They may commit to and work on closing the pay gaps, or to more aggressively advancing women to senior and board levels. Or they may focus on raising wages for the lowest paid, often female workers. Whatever the outcome, be it legislative or voluntary, 2016 promises to be one of the most important elections for advancing women -- whether to the oval office, the corner office or beyond.