12/06/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

A Holiday Message for Obama

It was the holiday season, and a new president and his young family had recently moved into the White House. I was home with family during a break from my first year at Purdue University. Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition that year of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. The first theme: Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, started something else during that holiday season of 1961. On Dec. 14, he established by executive order the President's Commission on the Status of Women, to examine the problem of discrimination against women and the ways to eliminate it. With Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair, the commission found that discrimination against women was widespread in the workplace. To improve society, the commission recommended, women deserved better pay, equal job opportunities and paid maternity leave, among other things. Many of the commission's recommendations ultimately made it into legislation, and some members of the commission went on to champion the Equal Rights Amendment and other initiatives. Fifty-one years later, with another presidential election now behind us and another holiday season now upon us, I can't help but think about where we are today on women's issues. To be sure, the working world is a better place for women today. But as a report released in November by McKinsey & Co. shows, women are still well under-represented at the top levels of management. According to McKinsey, women hold only 15 percent of the seats on executive committees and corporate boards in the United States. That's an abysmal rate, especially when you consider that women represent about half of the U.S. population, half of the total workforce and the do the majority of spending for families. More than a half-century after President Kennedy's commission on women, we obviously still have much work to do. Where to start? As our current president prepares to begin a second term, here are three suggestions:
  • President Obama should build on the earlier work of President Kennedy (and on the White House Council on Women and Girls that Obama launched in his first term) by establishing a new commission on the status of women. This new commission should examine the status of women in the upper levels of the workplace. It should recommend ways to encourage businesses to put more women in the top levels of management. One idea: How about something akin to the NCAA's Title IX program for businesses that do work with the federal government?
  • President Obama should also lead by example as he fills cabinet vacancies. Appointing a woman as the secretary of the Treasury -- several good candidates are available -- would be a great step. Making sure women stay at the helms of the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies would be a good idea too. President Obama could consider doing what Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee did: Chafee promised to double the number of women in appointed senior government positions -- and he did. Today, women hold more than 33 percent of board and commission seats in Rhode Island, up from 15 percent in 2010.
  • Companies and the shareholders who own them should take action themselves before Washington takes action. Having more women in corporate leadership is simply smart business. Research shows that diversity of thought is needed for companies to produce the best products and services. Increasing diversity of thought means increasing the number of women and minorities at the top levels of every organization. According to surveys from research group Catalyst, Fortune 500 companies that have three or more women on their boards have a 73 percent better return on sales and an 83 percent better return on equity than do companies with fewer women on their boards.
The holidays and the end of the year are always a good time to reflect on where we have been and where we are going in the year -- and years -- ahead. The commission on women that President Kennedy created in December 1961 reminds us of what we can do. President Obama's reelection reminds us of what we still must do. Here's hoping that we all take time to truly enjoy the holidays and the time we have with our loved ones this season -- before we get back to making the world a better and more equal place in the New Year!