If Women Are So Important to Business Success, Why Aren't More of Them at the Top?

03/19/2015 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

It's Women's History Month, and writing about women and work is in full flower. Faster than you can say 78 percent, we're reminded that having a woman in the room -- board room, production room, executive suite -- is better for businesses. (Enjoy it -- as Ellen DeGeneres pointed out, we have a whole month to celebrate, then it's back to 11 months of men.)

No one seems to be disputing the data, which come from a variety of blue-ribbon sources. Businesses with the healthiest bottom lines win. So why are only 38 percent of managers women, and one-in-five corporate board members? Business school applicants (though not matriculated students) and PhD's awarded are at gender parity; 37 percent of American women have college degrees, vs. 29 percent men; women comprise 70 percent of college valedictorians. So: brains, competence, intellectual leadership -- check. Business role models, mentors, and for entrepreneurs, access to capital -- needs attention.

Some excellent attention is being paid. The National Women's Business Council has just launched its #HerOwnBoss campaign,with straight talk and role modeling to which an entrepreneur can relate; the leading business publications regularly celebrate top women in business, always helpful (though it can be dispiriting to read the alarmingly short list of women CEOs in the Fortune 500). The Women President's Organization provides community, tools and educational resources to women running businesses generating over $2M in annual revenues -- and their members are kicking it, with a third of them posting 25% growth last year (vs. U.S. business average growth of 5.4%). And organizations from Astia and Broadway Angels to Springboard and the SBA are primed with funds and support for the right people and plans.

But as a panel brokered by More's Lesley Jane Seymour at the recent BRITE conference at Columbia made clear, tectonic change -- the kind that results in something close to gender equity in leadership and board seats -- will only happen when the guys running things find that not having it is a big enough pain point to their business that they will mobilize around the change. Faith Popcorn thinks that that will require a flat-out revolution; Sylvia Ann Hewlitt's latest research suggests that women must first overcome a misperception that leadership and power will limit their broader self-actualization goals, for which BlueMercury Co-Founder Maria Malcolm Beck provided excellent supporting evidence -- she happily associates her children's births with which number new store was opening (and just sold her company to Macy's for $210M).

Culture's the hardest part, no? Also at the BRITE conference was Duy Huynh, founder/CEO of Robotbase, who introduced Maya, 'your new personal assistant.' We saw a demonstration reel of young, blond Maya making coffee, ordering dinner, turning down the heat, snapping party photos, taking notes at a business meeting and adorably reminding her owner that he had lunch coming up in 15 minutes! (The site shows that there are 6 personalities to choose from, and the least hot one does look sort of male.) At the coffee break a gaggle of us wondered, why not Mannie? Mannie, call my mother, Mannie, make the travel reservations ... start the grill, fire up the power drill! (See?) Then one thoughtful young woman said, "why is the robot even a person at all? It's a robot."

I'm still thinking about that. Happy Women's History Month.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on LinkedIn