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Kara Stein: Recent gains in female leadership aren't enough

SEC commissioner says we've come a long way, but until we fully utilize the potential of half the population, we'll lose out on innovation and growth

Nov 17, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Kara Stein

When I was born in the mid-1960s, my alma mater did not admit women. Seventeen years later, as I walked the hallowed halls of Yale College and, ultimately, Yale Law School, it occurred to me that those halls were decorated with dozens of portraits, often in intricately carved frames, but only of men. To be sure, times have changed. Today, half of the students enrolled at Yale College are women, and there are many more portraits of women on the walls.

I think of this now in light of the recent midterm elections and my own career on Capitol Hill. Twenty-one years ago, when I started my career in government as a Senate staffer, only nine women served in the U.S. Senate and only 50 women were members of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is striking when you consider there are 535 members of Congress. And now, an all-time record number of women (over 120) are headed to Congress. This seems like quite an accomplishment, until you consider that over half of the people in our country — but only a fifth of the Congress — are women.

Now, I am a member of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and, here too, the numbers require a postscript. The commission is made up of five commissioners. Out of the five, two currently are women. To give some perspective, however, I am only the 11th female commissioner in the 84-year history of the commission. My colleague, Hester Peirce, is the 12th.

These numbers underscore the problem with measuring the success of women's advancement by simply recounting high-profile women who achieve a certain mark. We can and should take pride when the first woman heads to space, becomes a head of state, is elected to the U.S. Senate, becomes a Supreme Court Justice or becomes the first to do anything. But the appointment of a woman CEO or the emergence of a powerful female public figure is not the end of the journey. In fact, I have learned it is often the first step.

We now know that the more diverse an organization, the more likely it is to challenge accepted wisdom, disrupt groupthink, and explore new and innovative approaches. In the context of business, research suggests women, as a group, may deal more effectively with risk; better address the concerns of customers, employees and the local community; and focus more on long-term priorities. There is also increasing academic and statistical support for the idea that bringing women and men together around the same conference table may enhance stock price and shareholder value. In other words, women are good for business.

(More: Women advisers driving revenue growth)

Unfortunately, although almost one in three students at top business schools is a woman, less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. When we do not fully utilize the business potential of half the population — and a third of the MBAs — in the search for innovation, product development and growth, it's a loss not just for shareholders but for the economy as a whole. So what are the next steps?

It takes work to grow executives and directors. We need to ensure our female talent is progressing: learning, managing and gaining the type of experience that executive positions, corporate boards and high-level government positions demand. Organizations need to do the work. We need to train and encourage women to take risks. And we need to reward women with promotions and new challenges.

We also need to encourage leadership skills, including having a vision for an organization. I learned working in the legislative branch of government to think about not only what the law was, but what it should be — from how we can make our financial system safer and sounder after the financial crisis, to how we should regulate new financial technologies that do not fit into our current legal paradigm. We need to encourage our employees to think about the bigger picture so they can better help an organization move forward.

Part and parcel of this is to include women in the calculus. But not just to mechanically recite a series of useful statistics; rather, so we no longer need the footnote after these statistics. Ultimately, our goal must be to reach a point where diversity is so woven into the economic, political and social fabric of our nation that a woman having a powerful position is completely unremarkable.

I have seen a lot of progress in my lifetime, but we must work toward a future where my daughter will be able to look back over her lifetime and say that the goal of equality was achieved — a future where both my daughter and my son can stand together with equal choices, voices and opportunities. That's a future worth fighting for.

Kara Stein is a commissioner on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

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