A new Utah organization, the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI) got off to a rousing start Thursday afternoon with dozens of major Utah businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions taking the challenge to elevate more women into leadership ranks. Of note, all of the LDS Church’s for-profit businesses, and the church itself, took the pledge to support and encourage women leaders.

The official launch of WLI, held in the Zions Bank Founder’s Room, was the culmination of two days of activities and meetings promoting the Institute, which is housed at the Salt Lake Chamber. Former State Senator Pat Jones is the CEO of WLI, with Trish Hatch as director. The WLI board of directors is make up of prominent business and civic leaders with Lori Chillingworth, a Zions Bank executive, serving as board chair.

Rather than focus solely on equality, or feminism, the WLI makes a strong business case for women leadership. Research shows that businesses with a critical mass of women leaders on boards and in executive positions significantly out-perform businesses with few women leaders.

Gov. Gary Herbert took the pledge to elevate women in state government, and said WLI will “pay real dividends” and demonstrate Utah’s pioneering spirit as a place where women leadership is valued. He noted strong pioneer women in Utah’s history, mentioned the top women executives in state government, and noted that his wife, Jeanette, was a successful entrepreneur who ran a business for 23 years.

Keynote speaker Jeffery Tobias Halter, a consultant and national expert on gender issues, said Utah is only the second state in the country, behind Massachusetts, to create a leadership institute for women. He said Utah is ahead of all states in its collaborative approach and partnership between government and business to elevate women.

“You should be proud of what you’re doing,” Halter said. “This is an amazing first step. For this to be successful, there has to be buy-in from men, and no state has the level of male support that you have here in Utah.”

Halter said women are the key to growing revenue, improving operating profit, and enhancing a business’ reputation. Because more women than men are excelling in higher education and graduating with advanced degrees, “we’re going to see a tsunami of women leaders, and you’re getting ahead of the curve.”

Business leaders need to do and emphasize five things, Halter said:

1.       Always focus on the business case; use business terms and business language. This initiative is not a feel-good, token effort. It’s about revenue, profits and business excellence. Women control most income and spending, he said.

2.       Maniacally manage talent, which will soon be in short supply as the baby boomers retire. Some 85% of new entries in the workforce are women and minorities. Only 15% are white men. The new talent pool looks significantly different than senior management today, made up mostly of white males.

3.       Deepen cultural competency around women. Men think women have made great progress in the workplace, but women don’t agree. Women feel they have to work harder than men to be successful. One out of two women believe gender bias exists. But only one in four men believe that. Women face subtle discrimination that isn’t obvious to many men. Leaders need to talk to women, take them to lunch, to see how they really feel about corporate culture.

4.       Senior leaders need to ask tough questions of their subordinates and hold them accountable for encouraging and promoting women. Most businesses don’t measure women retention. Executive compensation should be tied to promotion and advancement of women. Men must be held accountable.

5.       Demonstrate visual and vocal advocacy for women. It’s hard work, but it has to be done. Do it for your daughters and granddaughters. Fathers of daughters should be outraged that businesses don’t value your daughter as much as your son.

Jones said businesses that take the challenge to elevate women should do the following:

  • Increase the percentage of women in senior leadership positions in your organization.
  • Increase the retention rate of women at all levels of your organization.
  • Increase the number of women on your organization’s board of directors, extend the influence of women in your industry, and encourage women to serve on community and corporate boards.
  • Monitor pay by gender and close identified gaps.
  • Establish a leadership development and/or mentoring program for women or enhance existing programs.
  • Recruit women to run for public office and give follow-up support.
  • Create your own innovative ways to elevate the stature of women leadership in your organization.

The WLI will sponsor a series of training and leadership seminars on seeking political office and rising to leadership positions in businesses and other organizations.