Almost 11 years ago, when I first started The White House Project, some of the top minds in politics, business, film, and journalism came together for our inaugural meeting in Boston. Our mission was ambitious: to profoundly advance women's leadership in the U.S., all the way to the presidency. Our nation's most savvy journalistic scholar, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, stood before the group and advised us of the primary need to "change the conversation" if we were permanently to transform the status of women across the country.
In this weekend's New York Times, the equally savvy journalist Joanne Lipman echoed the call to "change the conversation" if we are to make progress for women. As Lipman states, women's progress has not only stalled, but attitudes about gender have taken "a giant leap backward."
Lipman is right: our nation's conversation about women has degenerated terribly. Yet she is wrong in the assumption that focusing on numbers is the wrong way to foster change. Having spent 30 years working to change the culture and conversation - from Take Our Daughters to Work to Vote, Run, Lead - I know there is only one way to permanently change the discussion: numbers of women in leadership. Or more specifically, a critical mass of women leading in each sector, with the end goal of women leading in parity alongside their male peers. As the upcoming "White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership" illustrates, adding women to the workforce won't change much - but when we add them to corporate boardrooms and executive suites, anchor desks and political office, attitudes about women in leadership will inevitably follow suit.
The attitude shifts we need go far beyond the changes Lipman calls on women to make, such as asking for raises, having a sense of humor, and an end to 'good girl' behavior. Women will be respected only when our companies, institutions, and country as a whole embrace the idea that women are a critical resource, particularly during these turbulent times. When we trust women to lead alongside men, everyone and everything - from profits to policy - benefits.
As for each person, male or female, and what can be done: call, write, email every woman you know and tell her you want her to take the next step in her leadership, whether it's running for office, applying for that next job, or taking leadership in your community. A word of encouragement is all most women need, but without it many don't choose to lead. After all, we live in a country that has not yet fully trusted women to do so.
This weekend, The White House Project trained over 70 women to run for office in Wisconsin. Vel Phillips, the first woman and first African-American elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State, and an icon for both women and men in Wisconsin, told a great story during the training.
She relayed the tale of how she first came to run for office. While the men in her community were begging her husband (and fellow attorney) to run, he had no inclination to do so. Instead, W. Dale Phillips turned to his wife and said, "Why don't you do it, Honey?" That encouragement from a supportive man propelled Vel to serve in a position which no other woman has been elected for, before or since her tenure, and to become a celebrated pioneer and advocate throughout Wisconsin.
That is what we need throughout this country: thousands of male allies who turn to the women in their lives when leadership opportunities arise, and say, "Why don't you do it, Honey?" Only then, when we work together to elevate the numbers of women in leadership, will the conversation and the status of our nation's women be truly transformed.