The Missing Piece in a Woman's Nation

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The last few weeks have seen very important attention to the strength that women add as "holding up half the sky" and being half the workforce in our own country. The mainstream and prominent voices of a well-known Pulitzer-prize winning couple with a berth at the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, have raised progress led by women in developing countries to new heights. The excellent work by Maria Shriver and her colleagues in producing the Woman's Nation and the media attention around women is a big step forward in the public consciousness.

But, here's what's missing.

Much of the talent they see is untapped. To get to the solutions that both books want to see will take something more. We can't simply expect action in a country which has not prioritized childcare, paid sick leave or family leave, nor invested our foreign aid dollars where the potential is greatest for lasting change. Our decision-makers -- with 83% men in the Congress -- talk about "important issues," which have been front and center of women's agenda for action for decades, but they never make the cut. Women's organizations have a long track record of advocating from the outside. Champions on the inside, however, are in short supply.

Change is possible. Both research in this country and experience from abroad shows that when there is a critical mass of women at power tables making decisions, change happens. And that tipping point is what I call the "30% Solution" -- the point at which women's voices resonate fully to add the affirmative difference of shared experiences and values. Balanced leadership, in other words. We don't have it in business, in government nor in the non-profit world. While 101 countries have developed legislative, voluntary and even constitutional measures to assure that women's voices are heard and heeded, we haven't had a public conversation of why this is necessary and the positive outcomes that would inextricably ensue. The 30% metric is doable and can get us to parity where we no longer leave half of our talent outside the doors where weighty issues are debated and decided.

The outcomes of balanced leadership are impressive: a long-neglected agenda gets real attention and resources. Women of both parties in state legislatures are more likely to sponsor and vote for education, health care, family and community-building issues than men of either party. When there is balance at the board table the results include a longer time horizon and more risk awareness with 21st Century management styles of collaboration, partnerships, teamwork and relationship-building are added to the vastly over-rated "decisiveness dynamic". The bottom-line is better and opportunity opens up for more talented women to move through and up the leadership chain.

Women have made and continue to make a real difference in this country and around the world -- as workers, business owners, professionals, family members and community activists. The Chinese proverb that we hold up "half the sky" is right. It will be a "Woman's Nation" when women also have a full place at all those tables where decisions are made, so that our values, perspectives, creativity and energy are valued and we move on through as leaders for the future.

Linda Tarr-Whelan is a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and Author of Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up To Leadership and Changing the World.