Somehow, we've managed to make parity a numbers game -- where our aspirations and choices are expressed and tracked in the language of decimal points. In the process we may be overlooking a powerful force: people making life choices.
The blinking, neon headline issue is the relative lack of women in the top echelons of organizational power.
We're beyond balance in educational credentials. Men and women are being recruited for management positions in equal numbers. Some 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women's affinity groups -- and by all accounts they are doing a good job in connecting women, highlighting issues and sweeping old debris off the path to female progress.
Yet, the Forbes Insight Study found that 24 percent of senior leadership positions are filled by women, up 3 percent from last year. A Grant Thornton study put it lower -- 17 percent and a place for the U.S. in the bottom ten of all countries.
The numbers lead to the big question: If 50 percent of the American workforce is female, why isn't that reflected at the top? The follow up questions are: Should it be? Will it ever be?
Many take the debate directly to the imbedded remainders of organizations built by and for males. Outright discrimination has been dislodged, first by legal actions and then by enlightenment -- female diversity has clearly been shown to be good business, particularly for stockholders.
In spite of such efforts, McKinsey tracks a long-term decline. Fifty three percent of entry level jobs go to women. By mid-management, their numbers drop to 37 percent. At the senior management level, they are down to 26 percent.
Recent studies point to a possible reason. Women aren't getting the top jobs because they aren't getting the pathway assignments that take them there. A Catalyst study found that men get projects with more than twice the budget and three times the staff as projects headed by women. And this: 35 percent of men say they are well known on the C-floors, while the figure for women is 26 percent.
The reasons behind the numbers are typically murky. They might range from the fear of failure to the pull of family, both pushing women away from the high-demand, high-reward projects.
Other research shows that young women put a higher value on career success than young men. But, in the words of John Lennon: "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans."
A talk with the daughter of a friend illustrates the dilemma.
She is in bond sales at a major bank. She came in with big business school credentials, and was being moved along quickly.
"Our floor is such a men's club that we should be working in a locker room," she said. "But I had nothing but support. They gave me a round of applause the day I made my first sale. I was included in everything. I love this job, and it turns out I'm good at it. I knew I wanted to have kids, but I figured I would just handle it the way people do."
But when she had her son, things changed. "The thought of someone else having my son all day just seems impossible. He's got one of those baby belly-laughs that comes out when you make a funny face, or touch is nose. I can't imagine being away from that.
"So now I have to go in and tell these people who have been so great to me, and had so much faith in me, that I'm not coming back. I could lean in, lean back or lean sideways, but for me, nothing could be stronger than the hold this little guy has on me. I know a lot of people don't have the luxury of making that choice, and it's going to impact how we live. I know that I'm actually making it harder for other women. But I can't imagine making any other decision."
The amazing growth of women-owned businesses has made headlines -- launching at twice the rate of men. Many see it as a rejection of big organization inflexibility.
A fact that gets less attention is that these businesses are 27 percent the size of businesses started by men. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Hadary, former and founding executive Director of the Center for Women's Business Research and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, points to the usual suspects: lack of access to financing, unwillingness to take on the risk of debt, bias by potential big business customers, and lack of access to informal networks.
But she also sites motivations. Men, she said, start business to be the boss, and want to grow it as big as possible. Women tend to do it to be personally challenged, and integrate work and family -- tending to keep it at a size where they can be involved in all aspects.
Millennial women -- the best educated and most empowered generation of women ever -- have very clear ideas about why they start a business. According to Forbes.com blogger Meghan Casserly, it's all about independence -- the freedom to make their own rules instead of adapting to someone else's, particularly a workday defined by clock and location.
Flip genders. The number of stay-at-home dads - which many believed would free women to pursue careers knowing there was a trusted partner running the home front -- has doubled.
True enough. But, by Census Bureau definitions, the increase is from 0 .4 percent in 2000 -- to 0.8 percent of the population; hardly a demographic tsunami. Of all stay at home parents,they are just four percent. At least part of that reflects lost jobs.
Google executive Tom Stocky took the company's generous four month paternity leave (the vast majority of men take weeks at most). He's written about his experiences, including reactions from others -- which ranged low expectations of his ability to do the job (the bumbling dad syndrome) to being snubbed by female moms to the mistrust of working fathers.
I asked a friend -- a stay-at-home husband of a successful corporate recruiter -- about his real feelings. After telling me about the joys and unexpected challenges of care-giving, he said there is a dark side.
"Let me give you one example that sums it up," he said. "Put any group of men together, and the first thing you do is start figuring out the hierarchy. And men are good at slipping just enough into the conversation to do that. Like: 'I was out on the boat the other day.' When I say I'm a stay at home dad, they can't wait to tell me how great that is. But I know I dive straight to the bottom of the pecking order. I'm an oddity in the world of working men. A big part of the adjustment for me is getting past that. You're never going to change it. The key is to ignore it. As someone told me - 'you can't insult someone who doesn't give a s___t.'"
Should there be more women in the senior ranks of organizations? Should men support that quest by fitting easily into -- and feeling respect in -- the role of caregiver? Should the numbers of opportunity reflect the gender makeup of the group. Yes.
But when parity is about percentage, things get complicated. It's not about numbers; it's about the aspirations we have, and the choices we make. And those choices over time may not neatly add up in the metrics of equality.