By Kathy Cloninger
CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA, a Vision 2020 National Ally
First of all, I want to thank Vision 2020 for asking me to make the first post on this blog about women and leadership. It’s a subject dear to my heart, both personally and professionally. My organization is dedicated to building girl leaders, because girls who can lead—who have courage and self-confidence and can communicate that to others—tend to have better and happier and more successful lives. They also become tomorrow’s women leaders.
Which we need more of desperately. According to the Harvard Center for Public Leadership, 69% of Americans say there’s a leadership crisis in this country. Two-thirds say that unless we have better leaders, the United States will decline as a nation. According to the same study, 87% of Americans say that with the right leaders, the nation’s problems can be solved.
And they can—by adding more women to the mix. Here’s an example. There are some Fortune 500 companies—not a huge number, but some—that have three or more women on their boards of directors. In 2007, the Catalyst organization did a study of these companies, comparing their financial performance with Fortune 500 companies who have fewer that three women on the board. The ones with three or more women board members—across all industries—had an average return on equity 35% higher than the ones with fewer than three women board members.
The reason for this is not that women have some magical innate talent for business. It’s that they lead somewhat differently than men. They listen to more diverse viewpoints in decision making. They’re more inclined to work through differences to form coalitions. They’re less motivated by the urge to control.
Would those companies have had an even higher return on equity if they were COMPLETELY run by women? Probably not. It isn’t a question of one gender or the other—it’s the blend. It’s men and women leading together.
Now—if you want women leaders, you have to start with girl leaders. The Girl Scouts is in the business of developing girl leadership, and everything we do is focused on that end.
We’ve had pretty good luck with it over the years: Eighty percent of the women business owners and senior executives in the United States are former Girl Scouts. So are virtually all the female astronauts who’ve ever flown a mission for NASA. Overall, two-thirds of the women who are today’s leaders in government, education, medicine, science, and in their communities were once Girl Scouts.
But two-thirds of too few is not enough. There are 500 companies in the Fortune 500. All of them have CEOs. Only 13 of those 500 CEOs are women. There are 50 state governors in the United States. Four of them are women. There are 100 Senators in the U.S. Senate. Seventeen of them are women.
And so on. The statistics are terrible. In 35 years since the Title IX Civil Rights legislation was passed—and 90 years since women got the vote—we’ve gone from being a token presence in positions of leadership to being a tiny minority. We need to do much better.
By collaborating and working together, we can change those numbers. The Girl Scouts alone can’t do it—no one organization can do it. It’s going to take us all. We don’t have to agree on everything, but if we stay clear on what we’re trying to do, and we harmonize our efforts where possible, we can move the world.