Women are a majority of the U.S. population and have long earned most of the college degrees – at all levels. While degrees are merely one data point, one could argue that women have been and will be a majority of the best, brightest and highest-potential entries into the American workforce.

But a disproportionately low percentage will an open doorascend to the highest corporate ranks. So what are we left with? A trend in which our workforce and our management and leadership will be increasingly populated by fewer of our highest-potential members. Patti Johnson on this blog eloquently lays out the long-term problems this creates and why this should be a cause for alarm.

One frustrating aspect is that this knowledge is not new. The McKinsey research is more than a year old and not exactly shocking, and general awareness has grown to the point where companies or executives must at least make half-hearted attempts at bringing women into executive ranks rather than ignoring or belittling the problem. And for those who perpetuate or defend old stereotypes – hello, Paul Tudor Jones and Pax Dickinson – the backlash is quicker and harsher. Yet turning that awareness into tangible change is proving difficult.

What I want to focus on here is one aspect of messaging, designed to turn awareness into action among a most important audience – skeptical executives. For that, we’ll need to look at the cause of sustainability.

Sustainability sounds like it should be a simple application of science, and to environmentalists and other core supporters, it is. But it’s rarely that cut and dried for businesses or consumers. Their motivations are personal, financial, or driven by concerns of efficiency or legal liability. The emotional connections of marketing, threat of regulation and cold calculation of profits and losses are what will drive most companies and consumers.

You’ll always get the diehards by talking about reducing greenhouse gases and saving something or other. You’ll win over the C-suite by talking about cost savings, logistical efficiencies and reductions in regulatory uncertainty and other risks. Both messages are important, but they are audience-specific.

And so it goes with the problem of women not making it into the executive ranks. There must be real, focused efforts made in mentoring/sponsoring, in our education system (for girls and boys), and possibly in how our society views and governs what the working life should look like. There must be continued battles against deliberate and inadvertent discrimination, and education of the moral imperative of a business culture that does not drive women and others away. Those efforts must continue.

There must be continued battles against deliberate and inadvertent discrimination.

But when it comes to messaging, don’t forget about the bottom-line risks. A world in which we’re inexcusably losing some of our best talents and perspectives is one where our companies face increased financial, strategic and marketing blind spots. Internationally, there’s nothing that says other nations (say, China) can’t improve on getting women into leadership roles just because we can’t.

Losing some of our best talents and perspectives is one where our companies face increased financial, strategic and marketing blind spots.

The short-lived corporate satire TV show Better Off Ted had an episode where the monolithic evil company Veridian Dynamics installed cheaper motion sensors for its office lighting. Unfortunately, these cheaper sensors are also faulty. In the words of Portia de Rossi’s character, “The system doesn’t seem to see black people.” The company’s prime directive is saving money; ripping out this system and bringing back the old one would be cost-prohibitive, and so the episode progresses with the company trying numerous offensive and/or ridiculous alternatives. How do our heroes solve the problem? Messaging – they show upper management that the alternatives will send labor costs through the roof. In a heartbeat, the company reinstalls the original motion sensors.

This silly sitcom enables us to set two goals. One, we can be far better humans than the officers of Veridian Dynamics. Two, we can be better humans and still do the best things for the strategic and financial health of businesses. Putting our minds and resources to work on the shortage of women in upper management is a step toward both objectives.

Photo credit: Flickr