Why companies need to invest in women leaders—and women need to invest in themselves

Imagine standing in a room of 100 people. You look around, taking in the sights: people mill about, dressed in their business best. You see two individuals in an in-depth conversation about talent management; a group of three is talking about a recent company merger. You look toward the back of the room, where several people stand at tall tables, drinking coffee and responding to e-mails on their iPhones.

The room is full of 100 CEOs, and only six of them are women. At least that’s what the statistics tell us. Data shows that women:

  • earn 60 percent of undergraduate and graduate degrees and nearly half of all law and medical degrees
  • account for 47 percent of the workforce and 49 percent of the college-educated workforce

and yet they

Back to our fictional room. Just imagine what those six women would have had to do to get where they are. As a friend of mine recently described a female CEO’s rise to the top: “she clawed her way to the top.” For many women in leadership, that description is not a stretch.

Just take a tour around the Internet, and it’s not hard to see visual evidence of gender misalignment. A search of leadership conferences turned up several concerning results:

  • The Human Gathering: the site’s home page features two men. Scroll down, and you’ll see that only four of the twelve speakers are women. (Kudos for representing some diversity, though.)
  • Live2Lead: the speaker section includes three men and one woman, and only one is a person of color.
  • EY Strategic Growth Forum: good diversity representation but major fail when it comes to gender representation—only two of the eight speakers are women.
  • MIT Sloan Conference: their 2018 lineup (in progress) lists only six speakers—all men. Of 118 speakers last year, only 38 were women. (Here’s my challenge to MIT Sloan, an organization I respect: how about 50/50 speaker representation for 2018?)

(For an added bonus, just click through the top images on the Fortune Growth Summit website.)

These are major conferences with smart people planning them. How, in 2017, are they not strategically aware enough to make sure genders are evenly represented on stage? I think it’s because planning committees get to a point where it’s “good enough.” They have “enough” women, “enough” people of color.

I could go on and on. Watch your social media feed—if you get ads for leadership courses or conferences like I do, start counting the women and diversity representation. (And if you find a shining gender-equal example of a company or conference, please share in the comments.)

For all our progress, there is still a massive gender gap. Why is that?

I don’t blame men. Actually, my life and work are full of smart, big-hearted men who want to see change. They recognize the gender gap and are actively working to make a shift in who they partner with, hire, and mentor.

Women want to be at the table; and often, men want them to be there, too. The disconnect is actually making that happen.

There are a few reasons for this. First, male leaders don’t fully understand how to support their women in leadership. Even as awake men, they sometimes lack the skills to accurately train and mentor women to lead. This doesn’t give men a pass—it means they need to grow.

Women, too, often struggle with how to fit into a mostly male world. They know there’s a seat at the table for them, but with one hand on the back of the chair, they pause—unsure of how to take it. They look around the managerial or executive room and see men in button up shirts and suit jackets. They watch firm handshakes and claps on the back. They hear of golf outings and after-work drinks. And they ask: where do I fit in?

Truly, there’s no one cause for the lack of women in leadership—we all know that. And there’s also no one solution. We need men and women working together to change the leadership makeup across all levels within companies.

Creating a world of equality doesn’t equal sameness. We don’t want women-men. We want women who bring their full selves to work, not as women disguised as men but as women who are valued because they have talent and drive and also because they are women.

The gender gap will eventually close, but “eventually” isn’t good enough for me. We need men and women who care enough to put in the work to make it happen sooner. As women, we can’t wait around for society to change—we have to take the steps to invest in ourselves and ask our companies (yes, including male leaders) to invest in us. As male leaders, you have a duty to the women in your organization and community to give them equal support and opportunity in the workplace.

All of this is why I’m working with three other amazing trainers to pioneer a new way for companies to invest in their women and leaders and for women leaders to invest in themselves. Next Level isn’t another conference—you won’t be in a crowd of hundreds listening to a talking head. Instead, you’ll be in a small group of 20 or less, engaged in real training to help you grow. We focus on the key touchstones of growth: communication, platform, and leadership training.

Men, we’re offering you a way to say to your women leaders, “I’m investing in you.” Women, we’re giving you the opportunity to say, “I believe in myself, and I’m ready to take that seat at the table.” It’s all taking place in Boise, Idaho, January 11–12. Join us.

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