03/22/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of Women

It's a story that bursts with optimism: as we head into the second decade of the twenty-first century, all around us we can see the amazing power of women -- from the traditionally male-dominated industries such as technology, entrepreneurialism and politics, to the worlds of sport, the arts, humanitarian work, and education, never have women been so dominant, respected, influential, and inspiring.

Let's take a look at some of the facts and figures involved in the story of women in 2013, while not forgetting that this is no reason to rest on our laurels -- there's still plenty of work to be done.

The rising power of women

Whether it's making money or spending money, the power of women has never been stronger. Women drive over 80 percent of the consumer economy in the United States -- that's about $5 trillion dollars annually.

And when it comes to making money, the Huffington Post reports that the 2012 ranking of the 500 largest corporations in the United States includes a record 18 firms helmed by female CEOs, up from 12 companies in 2011.

"The good news is that while we have 18 today, there's a pipeline of women coming into leadership positions that's very, very deep and very, very wide," Fortune executive editor Stephanie Mehta said. "There are women sitting just below the CEO position at these Fortune 500 companies and many of them are poised to lead Fortune 500 companies when there are openings and movement."

This is good, but we are still a long way off equality. What can a company do to improve gender ratios?

Richard Branson suggests that "If you are looking to increase the number of women in leadership positions at your company, you might start by considering what opportunities female employees have for career advancement, and what barriers they may be encountering. Ask women from every area of your company about their experiences and for their advice. Fixing this injustice isn't just good for your team; it's good for business."

The facts agree with Branson: women's business success spreads to the rest of the company the higher women get up the ladder. The Credit Suisse Research Institute shows that companies perform better when they have women directors. Shares of companies valued at more than $10 billion that had female board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent worldwide over a period of six years. And companies with more equalized gender distribution have 30 percent better IPOs.

It's good news too for women-owned business; women are showing their entrepreneurial flair like never before. 187 million women worldwide are currently starting or running a business enterprise, and in the U.S. they are starting businesses at 1.5 times the national average, a 20 percent increase over the last decade.

A national survey of women business owners (WBOs) conducted by Group, Inc. and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) found a pervasive sense of economic optimism, including a prediction by most WBOs (85 percent) that more women will become entrepreneurs in 2013 than in past years.

Crunching the numbers

Education: Women are pursuing higher education in record numbers; women now hold more bachelors and graduate degrees than men (68 percent more). Women pursuing MBAs are at an all-time high; women now make up one-third of all candidates.

Business: Over the past 15 years, women-owned businesses are growing 1.5 times greater than their other business counterparts. There has been a 54 percent growth in the number of women-owned businesses in the past 15 years, with 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the USA. (Open Forum) The number of women-owned businesses grew twice as fast between 1997 and 2007 when compared to their male counterparts.

Sport: In sport, which has always been a male-focused industry, Think Progress reported that for the first time in 2012 women outnumbered men in the US Olympic team, with 269 women and 261 men.

Social media: Information is Beautiful states that there are 99 million more female visitors than male visitors on social networking sites each month. Comscore says women are the majority of users of social networking sites and spend 30 percent more time on these sites than men; mobile social network usage is 55 percent female according to Nielsen.

What is holding women back?

Opinions are divided. recently rounded up the opinions of some of the leading women in business to get their views:

Sheryl Sandberg does not believe that the workplace needs to become more accommodating to parents. Instead, she thinks the problem lies in the home, with women responsible for "three times the amount of childcare, and two times the amount of house care the man does -- and that's if they both work full-time." Neuropsychiatrist, Louann Brizendine, views the problem as institutional. The U.S. workplace, she claims, is "not family friendly for women or for men."

Debra Kaye, author of Red Thread Thinking has a different view: "The single biggest obstacle to their success, which may surprise you, is the women themselves. What holds [women-owned] companies back is the owner's lack of confidence, inability to think big enough and discomfort with talking about money."

Yes, there is still a long way to go. But the strides women have already made in a comparatively short space of time make me optimistic for the future, and for the continued rise of the power of women.

"We all have the power to design and develop thoughts into brilliant and practical innovations for everyday living. You just need a little confidence and the right tools. Trust in your ideas and yourself. Get out of your own way. Roar and you will be heard," says Debra Kaye.

I cannot agree more. What do you think?