THE BLOG

Women's History Month: Time to Start Changing the Future

03/10/2014 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

With March being Women's History Month (and Saturday, March 8 being International Women's Day), there's no better time to assess where women are in the workplace.

By any measure, we've come a long way.

Women now run some of the most cutting-edge companies in America, from IBM to Yahoo to Facebook. A woman is now in charge at General Motors. And fortunately, GM's board of directors has even come to its senses and realized she should get paid like a man.

Progress is happening. It's happening a lot quicker than when I became the first woman partner at what is now Accenture.

But we shouldn't forget that men still occupy 83 percent of corporate board seats at Fortune 500 companies today. They hold more than 90 percent of CEO positions. And they hold 85 percent of executive jobs in businesses.

There's no longer any reason why women should be so underrepresented in the top ranks of corporate America. Women now make up about half of the U.S. population and half of the workforce. We hold more college degrees than men.

But the fact is, the gains women have made in the workplace probably would not have occurred if not for the public uproar about gender inequality in this land of equality.

Sheryl Sandberg was appointed to Facebook's board of directors only after intense criticism of the company's all-male board, including a public rebuke by the California State Teacher's Retirement System, the nation's second-largest public pension fund and a major Facebook shareholder.

While GM rightly earned accolades for appointing veteran Mary Barra as its first woman CEO, it also rightly earned criticism for initially paying her much less than her predecessor, before reversing its decision amid the scrutiny.

And when other companies do address gender equality, it's often only because of public pressure from groups like Vision 2020 or Women Corporate Directors or the 30 Percent Coalition.

Just as women had to raise their voices to get the right to vote; the right to participate in sports and the right to hold elected office, bringing about gender equality in the workplace requires women -- and men -- raising their voices too.

Change also requires leadership. More women are beginning to help other women move the needle of gender equality, and a few male CEOs are examples of the rest of corporate America.

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, for instance, has promoted women to 30 percent of the company's senior roles. He has said he won't be satisfied until women hold at least half of Coke's board seats.

At Kimberly-Clark, CEO Thomas Faulk has increased the number of women in director-level or higher leadership positions by 71 percent.

These CEOs and others realize that addressing gender equality isn't just the right thing to do; it's smart business.

When research group Catalyst compared the Fortune 500 companies with the most women on their boards with the companies with the least women on their boards, itfound the companies with more women had a 53 percent higher return on equityand a 42 percent higher return on sales than those with fewer women.

And as Coke, Kimberly-Clark and other companies know, women make or influence 85 percent of all buying decisions in U.S. households and control more than 51 percent of all private investments. To reach their primary customers -- women -- companies need to have more people in charge who understand their primary customers -- in other words, more women.

Any commemoration of history compels us to think about what we can do to make the future better.

Women's History Month is no different.

We should recognize the great progress that women have made in the workplace. But we should also recognize what is still needed to do.

Here are three places to start:

1. Within your company, build champions of change for women and develop the culture to reach 30 percent women at all levels of your organization.

2. Look at your teams and demonstrate the value that diverse teams deliver to the bottom line of your company.

3. Be a champion for change. Reach out and help other women.

As women, as CEOs, as individuals, we should determine what we personally can do to bring about true gender equality in corporate America.

And then we should not stop until it is achieved.