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Women as captains

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Sometimes progress is measured by half-court movements. When I was in school, girls played half-court basketball. Girls were regarded as too fragile to run the distance.

It's good to measure positive change, like women's full-court professional basketball. But I'm done with simply celebrating where we've been.

Old stereotypes still stand in our way. Only two-thirds of adults in this country think a woman could be president, according to a CNN/Opinion Research survey. Meanwhile, state legislatures — the farm teams for future leaders — have only one-quarter representation by women. The U.S. ranks 69th in the world for women's legislative representation with only 16 percent women in Congress.

It doesn't have to be this way. The leaders of some countries have realized that it really does matter who makes decisions and that having more women at the top is good business and smart politics. For example, in Norway, women make up 36 percent of the members on corporate boards, while in the U.S. progress seems stalled at not quite 15 percent. How did Norway do it? In 2003, Norway passed a tough law that requires all public companies to ensure that their boards are 40 percent women. By 2007, 85 percent of their public companies met the mark.

Smart leaders in Norway and other countries realize that the talent base of the future is at least half women. But the World Economic Forum, which ranks women's advancement by country, says the U.S. has now fallen to 31st.

What an irony, then, that in the U.S., the talent pipeline is filled with women. By 2010, women are expected to hold 60 percent of the nation's wealth. Since 1996, a higher proportion of women than men have graduated from college, and the trend-line is only expected to accelerate. But we'll continue to waste a lot of that talent unless we transform our outmoded model of “only men need apply” leadership.

One way to tap our wellspring of female talent is to have a critical mass of women in decision-making positions. They bring new ideas and networks to reach the new talent; that offers the promise of no more excuses about a lack of “qualified women.”

More women at the table and in the corner offices helps to shape the future; a modernized policy agenda emerges to address lagging issues like the wage gap and support for working families.

How do we move into a better future? Decision-makers must ensure that there are women in every pool of candidates for every position from supervisor to CEO. Political parties and public officials must develop goals and timetables to get more women into political office; 101 other countries in the world already do it. Women who have made it need to unapologetically wedge the door open for other qualified women, particularly younger ones.

This March, Women's History Month, it is not enough to look backwards. The mindset that “American women are doing fine, thank you” clouds the reality that we need more women at the top.

Playing by different rules that undervalue women's contributions has no place in basketball, business or politics.

Max Brantley is on vacation. Linda Tarr-Whelan is a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank, and a former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum

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