03/19/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

History in the Making: Women's History Month Reminds Us Why We Must Keep Working For Equality

At Daytona, Danica Patrick makes the record books. In Silicon Valley, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg make waves. And on PBS, "MAKERS: Women Who Make America," makes all of us think about the importance of women in society.

What a great way to start Women's History Month!

I know I, for one, have been thinking a lot lately about where we are as women in today's society. Here's what I now realize:

Women have always been underrepresented minorities when it comes to the leadership of our country and our companies. We will continue to be underrepresented in the future -- to the detriment of all of us -- unless we do more to change it.

Trailblazers like Patrick, Yahoo's Mayer and Facebook's Sandberg are rightly getting plenty of public attention for their accomplishments.

But if the public naturally expected Patrick to lead at the Daytona 500; if Mayer and Sandberg were not unusual in leading companies and being mothers at the same time; if women were equally represented in their chosen fields... would they have gotten a fraction of the attention they've received in recent weeks?

Of course not.

The deck has been stacked against women throughout history. Think about it:

  • Nearly 240 years ago, our country's Declaration of Independence declared that all MEN are created equal. Women weren't even part of the equation back then.
  • Just 100 years ago, women were still marching in America's streets to try to get the right to vote. It would take until 1920 for the country (thank you Harry Byrd of Tennessee) to ratify the 19th Amendment finally allowing 20 million women the right to vote. Even after that, equality didn't happen quite like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton expected.
  • Just 30 years ago, the Constitutional amendment that was supposed to make our country more equal died, despite nearly 60 years of trying. Activist Alice Paul wrote the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress, but the state failed to ratify the ERA before the legislation creating it expired in 1982.
  • Because women historically have been underrepresented in the business and sports worlds (with the possible exception of the World War II years, when women replaced men in our factories and on our ball fields) we've had to claw our way to the top. We've had to endure sexism. And we've had to do it, by the way, while making only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.

To be sure, there have been successes. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. Today, 18 percent of our members of Congress are women, including 20 senators and 77 representatives.

For the sake of our daughters and our granddaughters, it's time for all of us to rise up and follow the lead of trailblazers like Patrick and Mayer and Sandberg -- not to mention Anthony and Stanton and so many others.

Here are five things we all can do:

1. We all -- men and women alike -- need to fully understand the benefits of equality. Studies show that companies with more women on their boards and in top leadership have better returns for investors. And leaving women out of management means leaving half of our country's population out of the decision making process.

2. We need to initiate impactful programs that move us from "counting women" to making sure "women count." And to get more women into top management positions, we need to "fill the pipeline" by making sure more women are in entry level and middle management positions too.

3. Women need to be committed to helping other women climb the corporate ladder. Women who are at the top of corporate America can't stop just because they get there.

4. We need smart government policies that give women control of their bodies, and in turn, their futures.

5. We need to question the lack of diversity around us -- constantly and consistently.

As we are reminded in Women's History Month, it's because of strong women throughout history that our daughters and granddaughters today are able to live in a world where the needle of equality is moving in the right direction.

To keep it moving in the right direction, it's important we remember our past, fully consider what's happening around us today -- and work for an even better future for women tomorrow.