11/07/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

U.S. Playing Field Still Tilted for Women

From no less a source than the World Economic Forum comes a statistic that tells us a lot about why few women hold senior executive positions or sit on boards of public companies. In its recent report the U.S. is 23rd in the world of nations in closing the gap between men and women in terms of how resources and opportunities are deployed.

The greatest nation on earth is behind Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as Britain and 20 other countries. The gap in America is systemic, from deeply rooted gender stereotypes that begin in the cradle to invisible discriminatory attitudes and practices that carry over into the workplace.

But there are women who push through. And a new book, The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors tells you how to do it, too, through the stories of 58 women directors of public company boards.

Several of them are on the list of the 50 most powerful women in America in the October Fortune Magazine. Debbie Reed, Chairman and CEO of Sempra Energy, one of five women CEOs of Fortune500 companies, bucked the tide early and majored in civil engineering, serving an internship at Southern California Gas Company.

From intern to CEO is the stuff of fairy tales, but Debra's career is a story of hard work, dedication, accomplishment and an enlightened mentor. "I was viewed as someone who was always looking for opportunities and challenges," Reed explains. Her mentor saw this, and gave them to her, recommending her for her first corporate board to gain knowledge outside her own company and become an even better leader.

Women in general in the workplace, regardless of how competent they are, are rarely viewed as "looking for opportunities and challenges". Self doubt, inbred reticence and reluctance to be labeled as assertive hold them back.

Carol Tome', CFO, EVP, Corporate Services at the Home Depot, has worked for all four CEOs of the company and, according to Fortune, has a real shot at the top herself. She has also always been an active and effective volunteer in the community of Atlanta in nonprofit and civic associations.

"Community involvement is hard work, especially when balancing a full-time job and a family. It's really tough. But you learn a lot. It's extraordinarily rewarding, and you make invaluable connections."

When asked by other women how to succeed she always says, "tell me about your networks, your business relationships".

Networking through participation in community and business organizations and becoming known for doing excellent work in these areas is the key to the corporate boardroom door.

I'm sure the pitiful percentage of women on U.S. public company boards (16.6% and stalled) is one of the indices that place us 23rd in the global "closing the gap" rankings. Many European countries are far ahead of us in this area and many others, such as available inexpensive childcare and early childhood education.
Isn't it about time we catch up?!