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A Blueprint for Change

Monday 4/11/11 WSJ article, very thought provoking study on Women in the economy.

By Rebecca Blumenstein

At a Wall Street Journal conference, business and government leaders examined what’s holding women back in the workplace— and set out an action plan for creating new opportunities.

When Sandra Day O’Connor graduated near the top of her class at Stanford University’s law school in 1952, she received only one job offer: to be a legal secretary.

Opportunities for women have expanded dramatically since then. But there is growing evidence that the progress of women in America’s workplace has stalled—and is now actually falling backward.

The Wall Street Journal convened almost 200 top leaders in government, business and academia not only to discuss the reasons for the slippage, but also to come up with an action plan for how companies, government, and men and women themselves can address it.

Women are now graduating from college and graduate school in greater numbers than men and entering the work force in equal numbers. But at each stage of advancement, men are at least twice as likely as women to move forward. Only 11 chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are women, down from 15 in 2010, according to Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit women’s research group.

“Middle-management women get promoted on performance. Many middle-management men get promoted on potential. Performance vs. potential,” said Vikram Malhotra, chairman of the Americas for McKinsey & Co., which conducted research commissioned by the Journal. “Qualified women actually enter the work force in sufficient numbers, but they begin to plateau or drop off…when they are eligible for their very first management positions. And it only gets worse after that.”

Among the top recommendations at the inaugural meeting of The Wall Street Journal Task Force for Women in the Economy: a proposal to encourage companies to break women out of traditional support positions like human resources and put them into jobs with bottom-line, profit-and-loss impact, considered essential preparation for the CEO spot. Other recommendations include the creation of a CEO Commission to make the business case for advancing talented women.

We need to focus on women in their 30s, get them to “hang on by their fingernails” if they are tempted to step back, said Sallie L. Krawcheck, president of global wealth and investment management at Bank of America Corp. “But that’s not going to be fast. It will take a long time.”

The disparity is increasingly becoming a competitive issue for the U.S. and its growth potential, according to economists, because many developing countries such as China and India are making rapid strides in how effectively they utilize women, which is helping fuel their growth rates.

Justice O’Connor, who served a quarter-century in the Supreme Court, received a standing ovation when she spoke to the participants. “Women bring a lot to the table and I think are effective as employees, as managers and CEOs, when they are given the chance.…And I just think we need to find a better path for women because they have had a hard time.”

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