05/17/2011 05:16 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

Check the Chart

Commencement addresses are often peppered with inspiring quotes, stories of perseverance, and warm anecdotes intended to uplift and inspire the next generation. But in a recent piece for the Washington Post geared for college grads, I opted to get straight to the point about the challenges ahead. The fact is that a level playing field does not exist for women in the business world.

Gender-based stereotypes have a real impact on the careers of young women today. But there is one way to ensure the first step from college is the right one. Companies with high percentages of women and minorities at the top indicate that women and minorities are valued and enmeshed in the corporate culture. Such companies have invested in women. They are where you'll have a career, not merely a job.

Below is my advice for the Class of 2011. If you know any graduates who are at this critical point in their lives, please share it:

The Mad Men days of open, unabashed sexism in the workplace are largely gone -- at least in the United States. But just because you can't see sexism doesn't mean it's not there.

For all the future leaders in this audience, a word of caution: Unintentional biases -- assumptions about how a business leader should look or act -- still exist in the business world. Women, on average, earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Even today, Catalyst research shows that women often start at lower positions than equally skilled men. And very few women occupy top positions in our most powerful companies. In fact, only 12 Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

How do you navigate this uneven playing field? Your first step can be critical. When considering where to work after graduation, look at the top of an organization. If you don't see women included and leading on the highest levels, keep on walking. And men, keep your eyes open too. Here's why.

Companies with more women leaders correlate with better financial performance and signal an environment where everyone is valued and rewarded, a place where advancement is not dictated by sexist stereotypes. Diversity on top also indicates a broader and deeper talent pool throughout the organization. This is crucial as these are the role models, women and men alike, who can mentor, sponsor and nurture your career.

So when you look for your first job, check the org charts along with the job description -- and do this throughout your professional life, too. Value the companies that value women. Ask yourself, what do the leaders look like? Are there some that look like you? And if you don't see women as part of the organizational leadership, let your feet do the talking.