When Women Win, Everyone Wins

08/01/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

To commemorate the 165th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a call to arms for women to gain complete equality with men, Nancy Pelosi along with House Democrats unveiled "When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families." The agenda advances three core pillars of economic security for women and families: fair pay, work and life balance and affordable child care for all families.

A CNN post penned by Pelosi and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro notes the rationale behind this new agenda: "Women are one-half of the nation's workforce, yet disparities in pay, the shrinking of the public sector and stagnant wages have left too many women and families on the losing end of our nation's economic recovery."

I created the Center for Talent Innovation, a non-profit research organization, specifically to address inequities in the workplace across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture. Enabling women to fully leverage their talent and advance their career has always been a central focus of our research -- and our analysis of the challenges and opportunities they encounter in the workplace, as well as our recommendations of how employers can address those issues, speak directly to the elements of economic security identified by the new (House Democratic) agenda.

Take pay -- which translates as a fair chance for advancement in the workplace. Despite making gains in middle and senior management, women hold just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, according to Catalyst. Despite filling more than half of the positions in management and professional occupations, they account for less than 15 percent of all corporate officers, and comprise only 8.1 percent of Fortune 500 top-earner positions.

It's even worse for minority professionals. Too often, educated women of color feel invisible in the workplace, compelled to hide their authentic selves, while operating on the edges of organizational power. Seeing little chance of fulfilling their ambitions, they feel like outsiders in their own workplace -- and have one foot out the door.

Yet amid these stories of missed opportunities, there is a solution: sponsorship, the powerful backing of an advocate necessary to inspire, propel and protect women through the perilous straits of upper management. Our extensive work on the Sponsor Effect shows that sponsorship directly affects pay. When it comes to asking for a pay raise, the majority of women (70 percent) resist confronting their boss; with a sponsor in their corner, 38 percent of women summon the courage to negotiate -- a hefty hike of 26 percent.

For women to gain access to this critical tool, organizational culture will need to change. Our work has helped inform successful sponsorship initiatives among a wide range of companies, including American Express, Deloitte, Intel and Morgan Stanley, to help standout women crack this last glass ceiling and obtain the positions and pay they deserve.

Similarly, we've explored the issues of work/family balance and childcare through our research on "off-ramps and on-ramps." Over nearly a decade, we've analyzed the hurdles encountered and help needed when women need to take a career break -- either for childcare or, increasingly, eldercare.

American women now account for more than half of all college graduates and earned the majority of graduate degrees for the third year in a row. One key element that will enable them to maximize their potential and their employers to leverage that talent -- and lift their bottom line -- is flexible work arrangements. Companies that actively endorse flex work are talent magnets. This is especially true for ambitious, high-performing women: 69 percent of women we surveyed said they wouldn't have taken a career break if their former employer had offered one or more specific work-life balance options, such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks, short unpaid sabbaticals and flextime. Companies looking to hire the best and brightest can't afford to ignore this powerful lure.

It's great to see a national agenda endorsing women's worth. How can we show our support? Next month is the 93rd anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. Let's exercise that right by telling our representatives that it's time to grant women full equality.

But the onus doesn't rest exclusively with policymakers. The private sector needs to do its part, too. Organizations must create "policies and practices that will allow women to flourish and advance." How is your employer advancing the core pillars of this agenda?

We represent this country's economic future. Women's success is America's success. This agenda is a step in the right direction. Let's keep moving forward.