The Huffington Post

Building Women’s Leadership in Business & Politics

By: Stephenei Foster

Posted: 06/21/11 09:58 PM ET

Earlier this week, I spoke on a panel at the “Democracy the Delivers for Women” Conference sponsored by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). CIPE is one of the four core institutions funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – alongside the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

The purpose of the conference was to look at women’s economic and political empowerment in a holistic manner, to “connect the dots” as one of the panelists so aptly said, and to explore women’s leadership in business and politics. The discussion was lively, very thoughtful and also provocative.

The speakers were smart and savvy, coming from the US and abroad. The first woman heading a private equity fund in Oman. A VP for Facebook. The first ever US Global Ambassador for Women’s Issues. The author of a NYT bestseller. President and Founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce. CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation. You get the picture.

When I left, I kept thinking about a central question: what lessons have we learned that cut across business and politics with respect to women’s leadership? What is critical to helping women continue to break down barriers that exist to women’s equal participation in society? I took away four key lessons.

1) There needs to be a “critical mass” of women in key positions. One woman in the boardroom, in senior management or in Congress doesn’t equal equality. Whether you believe in quotas in the parliament or the boardroom, and there are women with views on both sides, we can agree that however we get there, we need critical mass to make a difference. A 2007 study shows that Fortune 500 companies with more women directors outperformed those with fewer women directors; those with three or more women directors gain an even greater performance advantage. Similarly, a study of legislative actions in countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the greater the number of women in a country’s parliament, the more that country spends on education as percentage of GDP and per capita. In India, local councils headed by women paid more attention to critical water and sanitation issues.

2) Women need to be in key positions in business and government to succeed. Yes, you get there in different ways. In politics, you are elected to office and in business you work your way up the ladder. But in both cases, to be positioned for leadership, there are certain jobs that help you get there faster. In business, it is having a P&L position – that is, running a part of a company that adds profit to the bottom line. In politics, it’s often working on issues that are not considered women’s issues – defense, judiciary, armed services.

3) We need to make a strong compelling case that isn’t premised on hiring or voting for women because it is the “right thing to do.” It has to be based on the proposition that not having women on the ticket, in the boardroom and in key positions is a strategic liability. In other words, we need women in business to be more competitive globally. And, we need more women in politics to make sure we make the best policy decisions we can and build stable and transparent societies.

4) Networking and mentoring matters. Women still need to help each other, and we need to keep building bridges between women in business, government and civil society. Conferences like this one help make those linkages, as does every meeting like it, whether in Washington, DC, Cape Town, South Africa or Moscow. We also need to engage men and understand the importance of male champions. None of us can make progress alone.

Yes, women still have a way to go, both here in the US and around the globe. But, we have the data to make the case for women making a difference – to the bottom line and in terms of building policy environments that address societal needs and help everyone succeed.