06/11/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Ten Years On: Impact as the Third Metric for Women and Men

In 2003, Lisa Belkin, now the Huffington Post's Senior Columnist on Life/Work/Family, wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine that first identified the phenomenon of "opting out" -- successful, professional women leaving the workforce to raise their children. Three years later, inspired by Belkin's article, I wrote my Princeton senior thesis on Generation Y's plans for balancing career and family. This spring, some of my thesis research, including the fact that forty-six percent of Princeton men, compared to five percent of women, who foresaw a work-family conflict expect their spouses to interrupt their careers to raise children, was quoted by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book on the paucity of women leaders. And last Thursday I had the privilege to attend the Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money and Power, a conference sponsored by the Huffington Post and hosted by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski. While the speakers at the conference offered a lot of great advice, I couldn't help but recognize how little the conversation had changed in ten years.

In 2003, eight of the 500 largest corporations in the United States were helmed by female CEOs; in 2012, we celebrated a record 18 women atop companies in the Fortune 500. After November 2012, some cheered as women composed a record 19 percent of Congress as compared to 14 percent ten years ago. According to a 2012 study, women constitute just under 20 percent of law firm partnership ranks, despite being above or close to 50 percent of law school students for two decades. This is not substantial progress in the ranks of female leaders.

At the Third Metric conference, journalist Leslie Stahl noted that when women face a choice between caring for a child (she did not mention caring for a sick or elderly family member, but the same could be true) and doing a job primarily for money, the child or the family member will always win. But, Stahl suggested, if a woman feels that she has a job with impact, a job where her contribution impacts outcomes for a business, an organization, or a cause, then she might be more willing to find a way to stay in that role.

First, I recognize that this is a choice faced by women fortunate enough that money is not the primary reason why they work. But if the workplace is to become more fair and equitable for women at the bottom, then we need more women at the top to make the necessary changes. In addition, middle class women weighing the costs of good child care against their salaries face a similar choice.

Second, men often respond to this scenario by insisting that they too want to have jobs with impact, but because of the social role of breadwinner forced on them, they don't have the luxury of choice afforded to women by the second women's revolution that allowed women to enter the workplace.

If the last ten years have taught us anything, however, it is that the second women's revolution is incomplete and there likely isn't a silver bullet -- better part-time, telecommuting, or child care policies -- that would make it complete. While we can certainly take Anne-Marie Slaughter's advice and adopt structural changes that make it easier, it will never be easy to be a professional and a caregiver.

That's precisely why impact -- a third metric beyond money and power -- is so important for women and men. Harvard Business School Professor Bill George voiced this sentiment at the Third Metric conference. On the last panel of the day, George described his work with a new generation of CEOs that want to build companies with cultures that include impact in their definitions of professional success. "The men I know are just as concerned about being caught up in money and life," George said. "We want the same opportunities to define a life of meaning and service."

Impact does not mean only work for non-profit, charitable causes. Impact can mean designing a time-saving app for smartphone users. Impact can also be the responsibility and authority to invest the pension funds of thousands of workers. It can involve being a part of a team that brings a life-enhancing pharmaceutical to market. Impact is a recognition that your unique contribution of time and talent is essential to achieving your organization's goals.

Nearly all the women and men at the Third Metric conference emphasized the priority they place on family -- their spouse, their children, their parents. But those that had jobs where they felt that they made an impact were the most willing to find a way, however difficult, to enjoy both.