By, Stuart R. Levine
Published In, The Credit Union Times

Imagine a market demographic with huge, even dominant buying capacity. Think of a labor and leadership force that represents the majority of those completing higher education.

What if this demographic was underrepresented in senior management and that research indicated that increased representation could improve organizational effectiveness? What would you do as a leader to harness this incredible power? This group is women, who represent an underutilized economic resource and an opportunity for senior management and boards to increase organizational effectiveness.

According to a Boston Consulting Group study, women in the U.S. control 72.8% of household spending. Additionally, women control $12 trillion of the $18.4 trillion in global consumer spending.

Catalyst, the leading nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women in business, found that women earned more bachelors (57.2%), masters (60.4%) and doctoral degrees (52.3%) than men and 49.0% of first professional degrees in 2008/2009 – a trend that continues.

McKinsey & Co.’s “Women Matter” series illuminates the business case for bringing more women into the workforce and leadership. About 76% of all American women between ages 25-54 are in the workforce. The top 10 states, however, have participation rates of 84%. A total U.S. participation rate of 84% would add 5.1 million women to the workforce, implying GDP growth of 3–4%.

Additionally, women account for 53% of the college educated U.S. population, but only 50% of college educated workers are currently women. By increasing the number of women in the workforce, corporate performance and national productivity could improve.

Eighty percent of board members recently surveyed by the executive search firm, Spencer Stuart, and board research firm, Corporate Board Member, believe that boardroom diversity generally results in increased shareholder value. Yet of the Fortune 500, only about 18 % of board members are female, and 49% of Fortune 1000 companies have only one or no women on their top teams.

McKinsey found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was 56% higher.

Catalyst’s 2011 study of the Fortune 500 showed that companies with sustained high representation of women directors, defined as three or more over a four- or five-year period, substantially outperformed companies that had no representation over this same period. Returns on sales, invested capital and equity were all significantly higher among the companies with sustained high women board representation. Yet only 18% of board members in the Fortune 500 companies are female.

Increased organizational value can result from increasing the depth, diversity and quality of this group in senior management, especially when women hold such economic power and skill.

A number of effective steps support gender diversity, starting with a visible passion by CEOs and senior executives for it. Moreover, the human resource department and leaders throughout the organization must be fully engaged.

Values and culture and are key. When gender diversity is an organizational value, it will become instilled in the culture over time. Improvements are systemic, requiring a multi-year approach addressing areas of talent acquisition and development, succession planning, and measured results to reinforce progress.

Senior management should facilitate advancement at entry and middle management levels that will increase the pool of women suitable for senior positions over time. They can plan for a woman’s entire career.

The recent Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum indicates a poor showing for the U.S., being ranked 23 out of 136 countries in the status of women – doing particularly poorly in internal standards for wage equality and women in the legislative branch.

Mindsets count. Capable women can get overlooked. Succession planning sessions from time to time should focus attention solely on high-performing women.