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Women in high gear — and why it matters for our economy

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The Wall Street Journal reported a positive and compelling story Nov. 20 titled “Women Reach a Milestone in Job Market.” A record 67.5 million women are working, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and we have now recovered all the jobs lost since the recession began in 2008.

That women are resourceful, resilient and re-energized in the workplace is good news for American competitiveness. The deeper stats on women in business are also encouraging: Women are increasingly graduating from college at higher rates than men, comprising 67 percent of all college graduates, 51 percent of Ph.D.s, and 70 percent of all valedictorians.

Today, there are 10.1 million women-owned firms in the U.S. with an economic impact of nearly $3 trillion. I'm privileged to be among this group. Representing more than 47 percent of the workforce, we are not a niche audience — we are an economic engine.

In my 13 years as a business owner, the challenge has not been identifying and understanding the women-at-work environment but reshaping it. More than a gender or quota conversation, this is a business imperative. It makes economic sense to run your business with smart, skilled, inquisitive, high-gear employees.

In 2009, I met Amy Howell, co-author of our recently released book, "Women in High Gear: A Guide for Entrepreneurs, On-Rampers, and Aspiring Executives." She owns a PR firm in Memphis. On a train ride back to Harrisburg after closing the markets at Nasdaq, we talked about our journeys and the lessons we'd learned as women in business. We talked about emotional resilience, soft skills, communicating clearly, understanding the bottom line and rebounding from roadblocks.

We had disparate paths to success, but we had a common passion for shortening the learning curves of women. In fact, we have spent significant time mentoring and leading women to reach their highest potential.

I started my business at age 40 after 15 years as a stay-at-home mother to our three sons. The Harvard Business Review calls me an On-Ramper — someone who has left the workforce to raise children, care for elderly parents or pursue a sabbatical, then returns. Amy was high gear from her teenage years. She has balanced work and family without skipping a beat. We both serve on boards of directors and work directly with clients in the C-suite — that means working almost entirely with men. The reality is that to reach our highest potential, women need the support of the C-suite, and younger women need positive and transparent female role models.

There is a clear financial advantage to businesses and individuals when women shift into high gear. Making good business decisions, inviting diversity of thought and ideas to the table, and looking for the best talent should be gender-blind. As Jim Collins famously wrote in "Good to Great," getting the right people on your business bus is Assignment 1.

Can women find a seat on the bus? Is high gear attainable for today's women and the next generation of women? Yes.

Begin by defining your high gear, then build a personal board of advisers to hold you accountable and open doors for you. Make your goals known and be strategic about the company you keep. Look for opportunities to advance others, too. There's no business advantage to pretending you don't have talent or waiting for someone to affirm your aspirations. High gear starts with you.

Harness the power of social media to make superconnections. There are 1.1 billion users in 211 nations on Facebook, and 500 million users on Twitter. Tap these communication channels to find business leaders, meet influencers and gain knowledge.

Find your voice. Your words are the building blocks for your business and personal brand. The Op-Ed Project, founded in New York City, has a goal of "increasing the number of women thought leaders contributing to key commentary forums — which feed all other media and drive thought leadership across all industries to a tipping point. We envision a world where the best ideas — regardless of where or whom they come from — will have a chance to be heard and shape society and the world."

If we hope to increase our influence at decision-making tables, we must start telling our stories. Fewer than 20 percent of op-eds in national media are bylined by women. Trish Hall, op-ed and Sunday Review editor for The New York Times, recently invited fresh voices to submit op-eds: "We need a diversity of voices and opinions about a range of topics."

Get uncomfortable and grow. Change is uncomfortable; risk is uncomfortable; negotiating a raise is uncomfortable; confronting poor performance is uncomfortable; but these are all traits of strong business leaders.

With renewed economic prosperity on the horizon, now is the time for women to shift into high gear.

Anne Deeter Gallaher is CEO and owner of Deeter Gallaher Group LLC, based in Mechanicsburg.

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