Remember the famous Virginia Slims cigarette ad campaign back in the '70s and '80s? "You've come a long way, baby," the tagline went. The campaign sought to capitalize on women taking part in previously male-dominated activities, including working and, of course, smoking. But that slogan is downright quaint today
Loads of women now take part in the workforce, and it's no big deal for them to enter the top layers of management. (They also know that they can choose to stay home with their kids if they wish to -- this generation has options). In addition to several female secretaries of state, we also now have a prominent female presidential candidate. There's even the dawning realization that women make very good investors -- perhaps even better than their impulsive, impatient, frenetically trading male counterparts.
The idea that there's much women can't do seems downright silly these days. However, despite the radically changed landscape, the small number of female CEOs and company founders hasn't caught up with the times.
What glass ceiling?
A recent USA TODAY article reported that while the number of women who start businesses is rising, its growth has been extremely slow. During the last 35 years -- admittedly key years in the ascension of women in the workplace -- only 43 women have been made CEO of Fortune 1000 companies, and only three companies co-founded by women have grown into Fortune 1000 companies.
It's also difficult to think of women who have started highly successful businesses. USA TODAY did cite Build-A-Bear's (NYSE: BBW ) Maxine Clark, Mary Kay Cosmetics' Mary Kay Ash, Estee Lauder (NYSE: EL ) , and Ruth Fertel of Ruth's Chris (Nasdaq: RUTH ) . But it's tough to think of others.
Of course, only a tiny percentage of all small businesses and start-ups ever become household names. If there are fewer women-founded businesses, it stands to reason that even fewer would go the distance. Many women put their careers on hold when they start families. While that's a noble and legitimate decision, it can certainly waylay would-be entrepreneurs.
The USA TODAY article implied that the future sounds bleak, at least when it comes to female founders, stating that "the pipeline is not exactly filling up with future candidates."
In contrast to the newspaper's gloomy outlook, I see bountiful opportunities. If my generation, Generation X, has acknowledged and embraced exponentially expanding options for women, I'll bet that most of Generation Y (also known as Millennials or echo boomers, because of their great numbers) can't even imagine thinking there's anything women can't do. Therefore, they won't accept old-fashioned stumbling blocks. Look out.
My Foolish colleague LouAnn DiCosmo recently talked about some of the traits that make women great investors:
Women tend to look at more than just numbers when deciding whether to invest in a company. They invest in companies they feel good about ethically and personally. And companies with good products, good services, and ethics tend to have better long-term prospects -- and face fewer lawsuits.
Call me crazy, but those attributes sound like exactly the right ones for starting great companies, as well as for investing in them.
Meanwhile, many traits traditionally considered "feminine" may become the winning business formula in the future. Big business today is rife with corporate scandals, corruption, and short-term thinking. If female CEOs have run into similar stumbling blocks, I suspect it's because they felt obligated to emulate the style of male managers -- practices often prizing ego and connections over merit, the self over the organization, competition over cooperation, and small-minded thinking versus a big-picture approach.
That's so last century. No offense, gentlemen, but I think you could use a dose of real girl power in your corner offices and boardrooms.
Rumblings of change
Alas, that revolution won't happen overnight. But some companies seem to understand the importance of a gentler, more sustainable brand of capitalism, the type of businesses women can feel good about. Look at Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , with its "Don't be evil" mantra and philanthropic interests. Look at eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) founder Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Network, which says that "business can create extraordinary opportunity and value, and… market-based solutions can generate significant social returns." Consider Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI ) and its holistic view of commerce, which involves taking responsibility for the environment, its community, and its employees. These companies have turned the past few decades' conventional wisdom about capitalistic achievement on its head, and their innovative practices tell me there's plenty of room for female-founded companies.
Yes, I know -- those examples are all founded by men. (Of course, eBay did have a female CEO, Meg Whitman, and Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey started the organic grocery company with his then-girlfriend.) I don't play gender favorites when I'm investing, but I do look for responsibly run companies.
Don't stay on the sidelines, ladies. The corporate world needs more of you in its top ranks. And I suspect you're on your way.