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Jena McGregor

Staff writer Jena McGregor teases out the leadership issues in the day’s news.

Tom Fox

Tom Fox

Guest contributor Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, writes weekly about issues in the federal workplace.

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

Ilene H. Lang

Ilene H. Lang is president and CEO of Catalyst, a research and advisory organization working to change workplaces and improve lives through advancing women into business leadership.
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Think hard about where you work after graduation

Question: You've been asked to give a commencement speech to this year's college graduates about their role as future leaders. Give us the two or three key paragraphs from your address.

The Mad Men days of open, unabashed sexism in the workplace are largely gone—at least in the United States. But just because you can’t see sexism doesn’t mean it’s not there.

For all the future leaders in this audience, a word of caution: Unintentional biases—assumptions about how a business leader should look or act—still exist in the business world. Women, on average, earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Even today, Catalyst research shows that women often start at lower positions than equally skilled men. And very few women occupy top positions in our most powerful companies. In fact, only 12 Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

How do you navigate this uneven playing field? Your first step can be critical. When considering where to work after graduation, look at the top of an organization. If you don’t see women included and leading on the highest levels, keep on walking. And men, keep your eyes open too. Here’s why.

Companies with more women leaders correlate with better financial performance and signal an environment where everyone is valued and rewarded, a place where advancement is not dictated by sexist stereotypes. Diversity on top also indicates a broader and deeper talent pool throughout the organization. This is crucial as these are the role models, women and men alike, who can mentor, sponsor and nurture your career.

So when you look for your first job, check the org charts along with the job description—and do this throughout your professional life, too. Value the companies that value women. Ask yourself, what do the leaders look like? Are there some that look like you? And if you don’t see women as part of the organizational leadership, let your feet do the talking.

View all panel responses to our discussion about the best words of wisdom to give this year’s graduates. Here are some of them:

Alan Webber: Do everything on purpose

Marie Wilson: Help a country hungry for its heart

Angel Cabrera: Do good!

Juana Bordas: Transform your community

John Baldoni: Believe in what you can achieve

George Reed: Care enough to lead

Amy Fraher: Commit to ethical thinking

Carol Goman: Rewire your brain

Ilene H. Lang  | May 12, 2011 10:47 AM

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