09/24/2012 10:09 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Getting Boys on Board

While the movement for gender equality has secured women participation at ballot boxes across the globe, their votes are still in short supply at the world's decision making tables. An August study found that women hold a disappointing 16.1 percent of board of director seats in the U.S., 5.1 percent in Brazil, 8.5 percent in China, and less than one percent in Japan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The statistics should serve as a startling reminder of who holds the power around the globe -- and galvanize the world's powerbrokers to take a stand.

Instead of standing up, too many men kick back and take a seat, complacent in their majority at the expense of diversity and inclusion (and perhaps even profits -- a recent study found that companies with female board members perform significantly better than companies with all-male boards). If gender equality is to be achieved, fair policies, inclusive systems, and ongoing advocacy must come from those who still head and inherit society's halls of power. As women work to empower themselves and their communities, men have to do their part.

But it's not just women who'd benefit from a level playing field. The success of the opposite sex is also in men's best interests, as research shows that leaving girls and women in lower societal standing is a dismal prospect for both genders. A World Bank study recognized that increased job opportunities for women leads to less poverty and faster growth for everyone, including men and children. And limiting women's participation in the workforce costs the Asia-Pacific region up to $42 billion per year, according to a UN report.

Opportunities for inclusion will present themselves in in the coming days, as New York City hosts leaders and luminaries from various sectors for numerous geo-political gatherings. The attendees, most of whom are men, will extend handshakes, exchange ideas, and adopt resolutions, hoping to find solutions for a more prosperous and sustainable planet. Ironically, many of these powerbrokers will rack their brains for ways to make the most out of limited capital, food, and energy, yet miss the return on investment that comes from putting women in the lead.

And then there's the Clinton Global Initiative. While its Annual Meeting boasts the same high level of global thought leaders -- heads of state, Fortune 500 CEOs, and leaders of philanthropy -- as many of the other international gatherings, its strategic focus on the power of girls and women dramatically sets it apart. Here, the world's most powerful men and women astutely acknowledge that the half of the population most impacted by poverty, disease, social inequality, and unsustainable systems of food and business often holds the most insight. And rather than settle for thoughtful discussions, they take solutions-oriented actions that place girls and women at the center.

The authors of this article formed a valuable friendship forged in our shared zeal for women's rights last year, when CGI worked on gender-inclusive problem solving in Haiti. It's a geo-political area one of us is particularly passionate about as the co-founder of We Advance, a nonprofit promoting gender equality for the population feeling the brunt of Haiti's poverty and disasters.

To my excitement, CGI immediately got behind our project to empower women in the areas of health, hygiene, human rights, and gender-based violence in Wharf Jeremy, as did many Haitian men from the neighborhood. By the end of 2012, our program will have educated nearly 2,000 people in the infamous Port-au-Prince slum, a major success made possible by the active participation of men.

However, the story was far from over. Proving infectious, the women's newfound empowerment didn't stay contained in that neighborhood -- the local success and support of CGI encouraged the Haitian women to lobby their federal government for equal participation. Their efforts gained the support of Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and President Michel Martelly, leading to a cabinet in which women make up 60 percent of new members and a $10 million fund for woman-owned businesses. Though traditionally controlled by men, the government in the end knew the work ethic of Haitian women and that any country's best bet for revitalization lies in putting women's voices at the forefront.

But the move toward gender inclusion doesn't start or end with prime ministers, presidential cabinets, or, even as promising as it is, the upcoming CGI Annual Meeting. The curriculums in our schools and examples in our homes will powerfully shape the values of our students, sons, and leaders. Whether boys and men are engaged in gender-inclusive solutions today determines the quality of the world girls, women, and our communities will inherit tomorrow.

Maria Bello is an American actress and activist and is the Goodwill Ambassador for Women in Haiti. Penny Abeywardena is the Head of Girls and Women and Associate Director of Commitments at the Clinton Global Initiative.