Time to fix America's lack of female leaders problem: Carly Fiorina

Fewer than 5 percent of companies in the S&P 500 have female chief executives. Women make up 22 percent of Fortune 500 board members, according to Pew Research.  At the C-suite level, only one in five leaders is a woman. Women make up 25 percent of Congress. There are nine female governors.

There is a lack of women in leadership roles – we get it. The problem is clear. The reasons to fix it are obvious. Yet, we continue to fall short – despite spending $8 billion a year on diversity and inclusion training that is in part designed to help women succeed.

We know what hasn’t worked.

Women have been told to ask for raises, speak with confidence, find a mentor, delay motherhood, negotiate salary, use exclamation points, don’t you dare use exclamations points, lean in, lean in a little more gracefully, wear pants, dress with pride and the list goes on. And as I speak with young women across the country, they say the same thing: It is exhausting.

And no wonder. Nothing worth doing can be accomplished alone. It’s time to stop asking young women to solve this problem for us by themselves. Michelle Obama and I don’t agree on too much, but we agree on this: Ladies, you don’t have to lean in to find your way. Sometimes, that sh--t doesn’t work.

We also can’t ask organizations to solve this problem for us. One-size-fits-all solutions designed by consultants or C-suite executives just won’t cut it. Do we need policies to change? Absolutely. It’s necessary, but it will never be sufficient.

What we need today is a grassroots effort led by women and men like you who understand that leaving 50 percent of our nation’s potential on the table isn’t just morally wrong – it’s bad business. Everyone needs to step up and step out.

Where do you start?

Overcome the presumption of innocence

We immediately think “that’s not my problem to solve.” Perhaps you are a woman who has found success (I did it, others can too!). Maybe you are a male boss who just gave your female employee a raise (It’s not me, must be the other guy!). You could work at a university with high female-enrollment (we’ve done our part!). Maybe you think that’s a problem for your company to solve, with policies and programs whose implementation is above your pay grade. The first thing we have to agree on is that if you see and understand this problem; it’s yours to solve. The reality is we all see and understand this problem. Even if you’ve already helped, even if it seems big, even if you’re busy. It’s still on you. We need you.

Pick your head up; don’t rush to judgment

Too often, we rush to a solution without broadly examining the root of the problem right in front of us. We are tempted to apply the popular ideas that we’ve read about or seen on TV. And while some of the “best practice” solutions lauded by corporate America have indeed been successful (hosting a motivational seminar for women, releasing diversity statistics, setting a quota), they shouldn’t be implemented without considering the problem right in front of YOU.

So take a moment to pause and pick your head up. Ask yourself first: What piece of the problem is right in front of me? What’s causing that specific issue? What is within my control? What can I say – and to whom? How can I help?

Find the courage to take the first step

Change is scary and pressure filled. It is hard and time consuming. Maybe you know what you should say or do, but you don’t feel urgency. This problem has been around a long time, after all. What is the difference between this week and next week? You could be worried about how things will be perceived. What if people aren’t receptive to my ideas? What if I get criticized?

Challenging the status quo is hard for a reason. People are invested in it. So yes, it takes courage. It’s okay to be afraid – but you have to dig deep and find courage. Solving this problem depends on it.

Resist resignation

As my friend Adam Grant said recently in a conversation on my podcast, "By Example," what the data suggests is just a sense of futility. You’ve listened to speeches and read books and articles. You’ve watched programs come and go. Maybe you’ve even tried to do something about it yourself, in the past, and it’s failed. Most devastatingly: you’ve watched the numbers stagnate. Why would your effort, this time be any different?

But this problem is too big and too important for you to be resigned or fatigued. You have a role to play and it starts by recognizing your responsibility, taking a pause to really see the problem right in front of you, and finding the courage to do something about it.


Sound easy? I know it’s not – but neither is leadership. Leadership is hard.

You can play an important role in solving this problem and you can enlist others to do the same. You can lead in your home, community, and place of business. You can help unlock the full potential of our nation.

We know the problem. We know what stands in our way. It’s on every one of us to find our way forward.

Carly Fiorina is the former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She was a Republican candidate for president of the United States in 2016. Through Carly Fiorina Enterprises and Unlocking Potential Foundation, Carly and her team strengthen the problem-solving and leadership capacity across America. Her new book, "Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential," was published by Tyndale House Publishers.