At the Center of the World

Tomorrow, December 1, 2016 marks the 66th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ brave, quiet act in Montgomery, AL, an act that shot vital momentum into the Civil Rights Movement and led to the eventual passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A brave, quiet act by a determined, dignified woman.

Parks’ example got me thinking about the countless women throughout history who have led, and continue to lead, to change the world they inhabit. Women whose names we may never know and whose contributions may never reach our ears. Yet they live at the center of the world, as women have always done. So why don’t women leaders get the recognition they deserve?

According to 2014 United Nations (UN) and CIA statistics, women make up slightly less than half the world’s total population. The global variation is about .5%. In developed nations, including those of Western Europe and North America, the ratio slightly favors females.

The bitter truth behind these numbers is that women exist at the very center of the world yet they do not lead it – still – in equal measure. In 2015, the UN reported 18 female world leaders, of which only 11 were elected heads of state. Women only represent 1 in 10 of all leaders of UN member states. Forbes reported in June of this year that only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. While women’s ranks are swelling in mid level positions across many industries and professions, having a woman in a senior-most, revenue responsible position remains somewhat novel.

It is easy to articulate scores of social, cultural, legal and economic reasons why women remain so underrepresented in terms of formal power. One fascinating element in this reality is explored in a 2015 Women’s Leadership Study undertaken by the global consulting firm, KPMG. The element is confidence, or more accurately, the lack of it among 60% of those surveyed, who represent women ages 18-64. These women are ready to lead but struggle with seeing themselves in a leadership role.

Such wavering confidence is not the result of a lack of schooling or experience or ability. Rather, it is the result of growing up female. The study data reveals a lifetime of clear, unmistakable lessons females are taught from childhood; lessons about being nice over believing in one’s self (86% to 68%), about being supportive over being a good leader (62% vs. 44%), about being a good team player over making a difference in society (62% vs. 41%). Women are taught to wait on the sidelines instead of jumping into the game. These lessons are not only taught to young girls, they are shared by entire societies as the definition of what it means to be an acceptable woman. It is little wonder that 6 in 10 educated, professional, accomplished women find themselves questioning whether or not they are leadership material. Imagine what the results of this study would be in a broader population of women who may not have had the same opportunities for education and economic independence.

Such a schism between what half the world’s population is taught and the enduring impact of such teaching can no longer stand. The right of equal representation and the lasting benefit to all when power is distributed in equal measure are not philosophical exercises. They are real, and have real impact on lives and enterprises and nations.

Women are at the center of the world. Acting from that center, believing from that center and leading from that center are so sorely needed at this moment. As Rosa Parks exemplified, even a brave, quiet act is enough to create potent change. The first brave, quiet act could simply be supporting women in believing they can, and should, lead the world.

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