When women don’t lead, we pay a high price

Jack Knott
Jack Knott

Friday, we will graduate more than 300 women from the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, all with the training and ambition to serve in positions of leadership in government or the private sector. These graduates aspire to follow distinguished alumna such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Compton Mayor Aja Brown and former state Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard.

Instead, they are likely to face disappointment.

While some progress has been made, women are significantly underrepresented in the highest positions of leadership. This comes at a high cost: When women lead, they bring value to their fields and to society as a whole.

Consider that female CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies produced equity returns between 2002 and 2014 that were 226 percent higher than the S&P 500, according to one study. Similarly, corporations with women on their boards outperformed less-diverse boards by 26 percent on return on investment, according to a 2011 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit advocacy group for women in business.

Yet, only 5 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies are led by women, and women occupy only 19 percent of board seats for S&P 500 companies.

The picture is no brighter on Capitol Hill, where women continue to be underrepresented despite holding a record number of seats in Congress – 84 in the House and 20 in the Senate. While California is fortunate to have two women in the U.S. Senate, it has yet to elect a female governor.

Even in our own field of higher education, female leadership is lacking. Fewer than 30 percent of university presidents nationwide are women.

What can be done to promote more female leadership in business, government, academia and other fields?

To foster a culture that welcomes and encourages women leaders, we must work to bring national visibility to the issue. One of the ways we do this at USC Price is to give our students – both men and women – the opportunity to engage with prominent women leaders.

Public policy schools such as Price also have an unparalleled capacity to produce quantifiable evidence on the value of female leadership and to translate that information into policy proposals. Imagine the potential impact of a comprehensive equity index that compiles data on both the representation and outcomes of female leadership across federal, state and local governments, as well as Fortune 500 and 1,000 corporations.

It’s something of a paradox that relatively few women occupy positions of leadership while their performance record shows them to be so effective as leaders. Recognizing the added value of female leadership, and the opportunities that go with it, will hasten the day when gender parity in government and business is the norm. Our women graduates deserve nothing less.

Jack Knott is dean of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. Bonnie Reiss is global director of the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at USC.