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Editorial: Maryland companies need to lean in more

In a forward-thinking state like Maryland, it’s disappointing that companies are behind the curve when it comes to making sure that their leadership is diverse.

According to a report released this week by Network 2000, a nonprofit that advocates for women to be placed in top corporate positions, just 11.3 percent of executive jobs at Maryland-based companies listed on the major stock exchanges were held by women (for Fortune 500 companies nationwide, that figure is more than 14 percent). Also, women had a mere 10.7 percent of board seats in Maryland companies (it’s 16.7 percent nationally).

According to leaders at Network 2000, the poor showing is not necessarily indicative of any intentional bias, but rather a natural tendency to look to familiar people to fill high-powered positions. For years, men have dominated the C-suite and without proactive attention, those trends continue.

That is the crux of the problem — while gender discrimination is not actively practiced the way it once was, decades of abuse have led to a form of unintentional, institutionalized bias. This is where organizations like Network 2000 can be most productive — by keeping the issue top-of-mind and by keeping the pressure on companies to implement meaningful change in hiring practices.

As Network 2000’s president, Diane D’Aiutolo, wrote in the report: “Although common sense and logic tell us that gender diversity allows a company to avail itself of different perspectives, problem-solving talents and means of communication, studies have now been conducted that offer evidence to support this conclusion. In fact, CEOs in some states believe so much in the economic value of having a diverse board that they are meeting to share information about qualified women to fill their board seats — and we encourage this effort.”

It’s unfortunate that 50 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the subject of equity in the workplace remains a relevant issue, but the discrepancy between raw population (women make up 52 percent) and the sub-20-percent leadership numbers speaks volumes about how far society still must go to achieve balance. Don’t forget that it was a scant four years ago that President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which strengthened the ability of women to secure equal pay for equal work.

If the purely moral goal of empowering women so that they are proportionately represented isn’t enough to motivate the current power structure, other economic data should. These statistics, presented in the report, demonstrate how vital women are to a successful workplace. Consider:

-The 25 Fortune 500 companies with the best record of promoting women to high positions experience 18 percent to 69 percent more profitability.

-Organizations with a higher percentage of women in top management positions had a 17 percent higher growth in stock prices and a 1.1 percent higher return on equity.

-Companies with gender diverse leadership in top management experience better financial performance — ROE is 35 percent higher and total return to shareholders is 34 percent higher.

In a year when COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” received much attention for its candid discussion of women and leadership, one of the quotes in her book particularly rings true: “It’s time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table.”

Hear, hear.