As Economy Trails, Women Can Propel U.S. to the Leaderboard

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Olympics aren't the only races for the gold. There is an important global competitiveness challenge one you probably haven't heard about and the U.S. hasn't even entered the starting blocks. The race is to create balanced leadership for better outcomes. Across Europe, led by far-sighted women, countries and companies race to tap the talents of women and men as decision-makers. Seen as smart business and good politics, the call for at least 30% women at power tables is a mainstream issue.

I'm just back from London on a book tour for Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and met with women leaders in Parliament, corporations and civil society. The progress in Europe blew me away. Here's a thumbnail sketch of what is happening.

  • In the UK, both the Labour and Conservative parties are purposefully short-listing women in key races in the run up to the likely May election. The pending Equality Bill led by Deputy Prime Minister Harriet Harman calls for flexible work policies and closing the pay gap (about the same size as ours, at 17%).
  • In the private sector, Peninah Thomson leads the Cross-Company Mentoring Programme of the FTSE 100, which gets CEO's to act as mentors to senior women so they are better positioned for board appointments. The Economist continued a four year drum beat on the topic, "Women's economic empowerment is arguably the biggest social change of our times."
  • Across the English Channel, Norway's legislation to require 40% women on the boards of publicly-held companies--first proposed by a male Conservative Parliamentarian--has been a major success.
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy, also a Conservative, has proposed similar legislation to require action paralleling the laws in the Netherlands and Spain. Michel Ferrary in the Financial Times provides a clue from his research, "Feminization of management seems to protect against financial crisis." French firms with 75% or more male management have fared the worst, particularly in the financial sector.

Here in the US, however, there has been precious little action to bring more balance to government and the private sector. McKinsey reports that three-quarters of the Fortune 1500 have no women on their boards of directors, and solid research by Catalyst shows that it will take 73 years to reach parity. While we have the highest proportion of women in Congress in our history at 17%, that leaves us trailing 74 countries.

A solid societal challenge lies in front of us. We can't waste any more time thinking this is a marginal women's issue. Goldman Sachs research shows that the GDP would rise 9% if women's employment and wages were equal to men. As the majority of college and graduate school graduates, the overwhelming purchasers of consumer products and the driving force of job creation as entrepreneurs, women are the most underutilized natural resource we have to jumpstart economic growth.

Our public policies and private sector practices are stuck in the past. The last major national effort to improve flexibility to balance family and work was signed into law in 1993. Unpaid FMLA doesn't meet the international norm of paid maternity/paternity leave, and child care is lacking in availability and quality.

Complacency has never won a race. We can and must achieve the 30% Solution -- a minimum of 30% women at leading power tables by 2020. That's the tipping point where women's ideas, experiences and ways of doing business can be heard and heeded. Meeting the challenge won't be easy, but 100 years after women's suffrage is time enough. We need more women as partners to in make the major decisions affecting companies and the country. Our competitors are leading the field. It's time we started training for the gold.

Linda Tarr-Whelan is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, where she leads the Women's Leadership Initiative. She is the author of Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World.