90 years later, the struggle for equality continues
August 26 is a historic date for women of the world. It is the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, securing for women the right to vote. On this date in 1920 the amendment was certified by Secretary of State Colby, permanently enshrining the right of women's suffrage.
It had been a long time coming. Women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott started the suffrage movement in 1848 at a meeting in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Susan B. Anthony famously took up the fight until her death in 1906, 14 years before the realization of her dream. Even before them, Abigail Adams was championing the right for women to be equal participants in what was then a still-forming democracy, once writing her husband John, "If women are not represented in this new republic there will be another revolution."
After all these years, women are clearly making progress. When I joined the workplace in the 1960s, I was the first female professional at a major accounting firm. Today, women represent nearly half of the country's workforce and half of its college graduates.
Fortune magazine reports the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies grew four-fold in the past decade. Recent elections show women are gaining ground in the nation's statehouses, in Congress, and can be formidable challengers for the presidency. In the fallout of the recession, women have become primary breadwinners in many families.
But we still have a long way to go. Of those Fortune 500 CEOs, women made up only 15 in 2009. Women may make up half of the U.S. population, but they constitute less than 20 percent of our Congress, the body that's supposed to equally represent all of America. Women still earn an average of 78 cents for every $1 a man earns.
Is it's time for a new revolution? August 26 marks the beginning of the Decade of Women, giving us 10 years to address the remaining inequalities.
Imagine if more women were involved in the decision-making regarding events that have shaped our world. What if more women, with traits like experience, compassion and caring, were more involved in the decisions regarding recent conflicts and wars? What if less-egotistical "Lehman Sisters" ran Wall Street equally alongside the "Lehman Brothers" during the recent financial meltdown? What if women, generally better compromisers and consensus builders, equally filled the ranks of Congress?
The answer: We would change our world, for the better.
A study for the nonprofit group Catalyst Inc. shows that companies with the most women on their board of directors outperformed those with the least number of women directors by more than 50 percent when measured by return on equity. A separate study by the management consulting firm Caliper shows that women leaders are generally more persuasive, more inclusive and less risk-averse than their male counterparts. And lastly, in a Pew Research Center survey, respondents overwhelming said women leaders were more honest, compassionate, creative and intelligent than male leaders.
So where do we begin? We begin by changing our organizations. We must all ensure that women and men are represented equally in our companies, our government and elsewhere. Diversity, we have learned, fosters change.
Women must take responsibility for themselves to move into more leadership roles, not wait on government agencies or current management. They must take responsibility for other women, by becoming mentors and advocates.
Some countries have determined equality for women is so important they've proposed quotas and made it illegal not to include more women in executive ranks. Norway, for instance, now mandates that every company's board of directors include women. If not, the government can shut them down.
Is something similar needed in the United States? Probably not - at least if we all do our part. All of us - men and women - must get involved in extending equality for women beyond the ballot box and into our businesses, governments and organizations.
If we do, together we can once again change the world.
(for more, read about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the price of religious iconoclasm)
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