09/10/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why I'd Like to Buy Muhtar Kent a Coke

Putting women in more leadership positions is a bottom-line benefit for businesses.

Women, after all, account for 85 percent of all U.S. consumer purchases. They control more than 60 percent of all personal wealth in the country. And they own more than half of all stock in U.S. companies.

So, why do women still only hold less than 15 percent of executive management jobs at Fortune 500 companies?

Partly, it's because not enough chief executives get the connection between business and gender equality.

One CEO who gets it is Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent.

We all could learn a thing or two from the chief executive of one of the world's best-known and most profitable companies.

At a recent Network of Executive Women conference, Kent explained the connection.

In 2007, Kent said, he noticed a glaring mismatch. Women accounted for 70 percent of purchases of Coca-Cola products, and control $20 trillion in annual spending.


Yet at Coke -- like many companies -- only a small fraction of top management jobs were filled by women.

"I found a disconnect between our percentage of women in leadership roles and young women executives coming into the company, and the people buying our products," Kent said in a keynote interview at the conference. "I said, 'we cannot be successful if this disconnect continues."

So from the top, he set about making change.

Today, women hold more than 30 percent of senior management positions at Coke, up from 23 percent in 2008.

To help keep the pipeline of women destined for senior management positions flowing, Coke launched a global women's initiative and created a Women's Leadership Council to develop young women leaders.

And recently, company elected a fourth woman to its 17-member board of directors.

But Kent isn't satisfied.

"Why would we be satisfied until we get to at least half of our board being women?" Kent said at the NEW conference.

Along with helping transform Coke, Kent has become an evangelist for empowering women everywhere.

"We need to make everyone more aware of the benefits of empowering women," he told several hundred attendees at the NEW conference. "Then I think we can succeed faster. Because it's one thing to achieve success, and another to repeat success.

"That's the job of a leader," he said. "Promoting women leadership and creating a more level playing field is a huge enabler to repeat success."

In order to change corporate America -- for the good of not just corporations, but for the good of society -- women of course must take charge of their own destiny.

We must make things happen for us, not to us. We must become the CEOs of ourselves. And we must help other women coming up the corporate ladder behind us.

But change also must come from the top.

I learned this more than 40 years ago, when -- thanks in part to forward-thinking male managers -- I was given the opportunity to became the first woman professional at Arthur Anderson &Co. and later, the first woman partner of what would become Accenture.

I created my own future. But I could not have done it without the foresight of male CEOs and managers who helped pave the way for me and many women after me.

It's refreshing to see CEOs like Coke's Muhtar Kent who get the connection between women and business success, and who are still helping to pave the way for women in corporate America today.

If only we had more CEOs like him who really get it.