Still Fighting for Parity for Women

As president of the Global Women Foundation, a public charity that supports leadership and advocacy for women’s initiatives across the globe, and the California Women’s Conference, the a conference for women that has run for 28 years, Michelle Patterson is driven by the belief that everyone, male of female, has something to contribute. Patterson sees a future where female leaders are just as plentiful as men.

Patterson recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

The Center for American Progress reported that it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in the U.S. Why are we so far away from that parity? What needs to be done to done to make it happen sooner?

You only have to look at the data from the past five or 10 years to see why progress toward parity has slowed or completely stopped by nearly every measure of executive presence. Only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and that number hasn’t budged in years.

Sure, it’s better than it was 30 years ago, but that doesn’t say anything about our current lack of momentum. We need solid mentorship that creates strong female candidates for executive and board positions, and we need selection boards to realize that a diverse leadership team results in stronger decision-making processes and is good for organizational health as a whole.

Why do women deserve to hold equal, if not more, leadership positions as men?

Nowhere do I say that women deserve more leadership positions than men. That would be just as bad as saying that men deserve more leadership positions than women — it’s a false statement that relies on generalities and perceived “inherent qualities” that are unique to the sexes, which is exactly the argument that people usually use to keep women out of positions of power.

No, what women deserve is to be considered on an equal level with their male counterparts. Clearly that is not the situation today (as you can see from the huge imbalance in executive leadership), which is why our efforts are focused on bringing women to the forefront.

What makes fighting for women’s issues so important to you?

This is a two-part answer. First, I’ve seen so many promising careers stunted because of prejudice in the workplace, people with dreams, aspirations and incredible amounts of talent all wasted because of their gender. The life of an executive is not for every woman, but I want every woman with the drive and talent to succeed to have that chance.

And second, if American business wants to survive, it has to embrace more diverse leadership teams. Did you know that only 3 percent of artistic directors in advertising are women? And this in a country where women make 80 percent of consumer spending decisions. We can’t afford to be so out of touch when other parts of the world are making such great strides forward.

What was the reason for our country falling from having the sixth-highest rate of female labor force participation among 22 OECD countries to 17th between 1990 and 2010?

We used to lead the fight in breaking down the glass ceiling, it’s true. Part of the reason we’ve fallen in the standings is the result of other countries stepping up their game, inspired by our example. But a bigger reason that we’ve fallen has to do with the stagnation of growth that I talked about earlier. You can’t move up in the rankings without making progress, and we’re not making progress.

What would you say to women who are looking at becoming involved with worldwide women’s initiatives?

Do it. Do it, with all your heart and soul, and don’t be afraid. There’s so much good work out there to be done, and I commend you for being part of it.

That said, things get tricky when you start working in other cultures. Yes, we want women everywhere to have the freedom to live the way they want to, but that doesn’t mean that the women you’re going to work with will feel that way. The struggle may look very different in some countries than it does here, and you have to respect that and respect their right to believe what they believe. Educate, don’t coerce or shame.

What is the future of the California Women’s Conference?

We’ve been going strong for nearly 30 years now, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. What I want to develop more is the year-round aspect of our mission; we don’t just want to be a once-a-year thing where women come and then it’s back to business as soon as they get home. Real change happens back home, in the small moments and the little successes, and we’re working on lots of ways to support women through them as well as the main conference.

What do you see the state of women’s equality being in five years?

We’re going to be back on track, mark my words. There are great leaders coming up now — I see them every year at the conference, every year there’s more of them — and I’m excited to see what they can do.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.