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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World

Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World

By Linda Tarr-Whelan

Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

ISBN 9781605091358

This review first appeared on on 11th October 2010.


Women Lead the Way presents the argument, research and tactical guidance to help readers wedge the door open to bring more women through and up. Evidence from around the world validates the findings of the United Nations General Assembly in 1995, which set a baseline of at least 30% women as a prerequisite for genuine partnership and lasting, positive change in the international arena. We see the same phenomena in the business world. More women as corporate officers and members of boards of directors result in stronger financial performance. At 30% representation, we see concrete, positive outcomes for everyone - not just women - including increased shareholder value, more flexible management approaches, broader definitions of success and better bottom lines. More women at the table means more progress for all of us.


"Close your eyes and imagine a 'leader'. What do you see? Extensive studies show that in the United States, the visual image for almost everyone is a man." This is the reality in which Linda Tarr-Whelan, an accomplished woman leader, writes her book on how to advance the women's movement. Linda has held many influential roles, including UN Commissioner on the Status of Women, to which she was appointed by President Bill Clinton--so she writes with some authority.

Linda Tarr-Whelan will be satisfied, for starters, with the advancement of women to "30% of the voice." The basic proposition in this book is not equality in presence and influence, but 30% representation of women in all positions of power - political, community, business leadership and more. Linda's theory, based on "more than four decades" of experience and practical activity in this field, is that 30% is enough of a critical mass to change the way things get done. It's probably the best we can hope for in terms of the male patriarchy's ability to absorb and support--though that's my conclusion, and not the author's. She does, however, provide a completely cohesive and persuasive set of arguments for the adoption of a 30% Solution, a concept which was advanced at the fourth UN conference on the Status of Women, held in Beijing in 1995, which she attended.

Linda Tarr-Whelan maintains that the 30% Solution is enough to deliver better government because "women in government are more likely, regardless of party, to concentrate on improving healthcare and education [and] on ending violence…." Equally the 30% Solution improves business outcomes, with firms having more women directors delivering higher returns on equity, sales and working capital, as researched by Catalyst. World-over, however, we are still far from this 30% Solution. "Only one third of the top 1,500 corporations have any women in top management" - let alone 30%.

The attraction of Linda Tarr-Whelan's book is its optimism. It's not just whine and weep. It's energizing. After articulating the case for 30%, and providing many insights as to what's blocking its achievement, the author goes on to share what needs to happen to get there, using stories, anecdotes and truisms we can all relate to. One of my personal favorites is, "Gro Harlem Brundtland used to tell; her son would ask: 'Mother, can boys become prime ministers too?'" Another is the story of when the author, working at the New York State Department of Labor, was instructed to fire a clerk in her department. The woman in question often arrived late due the fact, as a single mom, she had to drop off her children at schools which didn't open in time for her to get to work punctually. The solution was clear: "A flextime policy for the department started right then."

Another highlight of the book is the "Everywoman Quiz" (Chapter 3), in which the author tests our perceptions on myths that exist about how quickly women are moving up the ladder, or not. I have to admit to not responding to all of the 10 questions correctly; for example, I did not know sales generated by women-owned small business is equal to the GDP of China! But that's all I am going to share … you will have to get the book and do the rest of the quiz yourselves!

Women Lead The Way does not allow us women to wallow in self-pity or shirk our responsibilities. "It is women who must take the lead in achieving the 30% Solution. Waiting for someone else to do it won't work… together we can instigate a cultural shift away from long-term biased attitudes conferring 'leadership' on men." The book lays out a road map with the destination of 30%--a road map women must trek and advance. The most basic starting point is how we leverage our two key resources: time and money, even if one or both are in short supply. We all have circles of influence in which we can develop our leadership skills ("When the door opens, go through"). The remaining chapters offer equally good advice with practical examples of how women can apply their leadership skills.

Tarr-Whelan concludes by describing five big dreams for 2020. These include having women leaders at every political table, "womenomics" as a widely-supported mainstream strategy, a revitalized social compact, recognized accountability framework of standards and measurements to monitor progress, and perhaps the most special of all, "young women growing up expecting to be leaders just like young men - but with a difference."

There are some books that you just have to read more than once, and this is one of them. Women Lead The Way is a true revelation, opening minds to a host of fascinating and important insights as to how we can all work toward achieving some measure of gender equality. The book is written in serious but plain eye-level language that we can all understand, even men (!). The book contains sensible, balanced, practical and future-critical proposals, which I hope will hit home and become a strong catalyst for action. This book should be high on the reading list of every man who holds a position of influence and every woman who wants to achieve one. It certainly is an impressive addition to all the literature I have read on diversity, equality, gender and business responsibility--quite an inspirational one at that.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website

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