This should be a season of celebration. After all, by many measures, there's never been a better time to be a woman. In places like Scandinavia and Britain, a third or more of all corporate managers are now women. The number of female executive directors of FTSE 100 companies nearly doubled from 2000 to 2004. Latin America has seen a 50 percent jump in the number of women politicians in the last decade. Japan voted 26 new female parliamentarians into office this year. Of course, the jewel in the equal-opportunity crown was this fall's election of Angela Merkel--once nicknamed "the Girl" by Helmut Kohl--to Germany's highest office.
But as always, statistics tell a multifaceted story. Sure, it's no longer an anomaly to have a female CEO--but there are still only 17 female executive directors in the largest FTSE 100 companies. In the EU Parliament, only 23 out of 162 members are female. Yes, women represent more than 50 percent of students in higher education in many parts of the world. But as a recent report by Catalyst, a U.S. research firm specializing in women and work, noted, the representation of women in corporate leadership has been stagnant for the last several years. In Britain, studies show that women have never been more dissatisfied with the workplace. No wonder: the EU pay gap between men and women shrank only one point in the last couple of years, to 17.5 percent.
So where does all this leave us? With some big challenges that require more female leadership to solve. At some major companies--including Shell and British Telecom--women are combating the old-boys'-club atmosphere by starting their own networks, linking top female leaders with up-and-comers they can mentor. Labor flexibility is also on the agenda; in parts of Europe, top female legislators have fought to give employees with children or elderly parents the right to ask for adjustable hours. Perhaps most important, there is an increasingly vibrant debate around work-life balance. Study after study shows that it is a working woman's second full-time job--as caregiver--that makes it most difficult for her to stay on the career ladder. While extra benefits and longer maternity leave can help, they aren't a complete solution. New research shows that in places like Sweden, employers sometimes discriminate against women of childbearing age to avoid paying out costly benefits.
Clearly, some out-of-the-box thinking is required. And that's where women come in. In countries like Cameroon, Bolivia and Malaysia, greater numbers of women in public office have resulted in less spending on the military and more on health, education and infrastructure. Norway's woman-heavy Parliament recently passed a law mandating that 40 percent of directors on corporate boards be women. And in Germany, the archetypal outsider--a woman who grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain--will likely take the helm in a country with virtually no other women in top positions of power. No longer "the Girl" but poised to become the chancellor, Merkel is a symbol of how far women have come--and the work that remains to be done.