We’re at the cusp of an amazing cultural shift: the majority of women under 40 within 10 years will be better educated and better paid than men of equal age.

That means that the role of women‘s advocacy organizations in business is not only to strive for equality; it’s to help women prepare for the burdens of leadership.

Stark, but true.

Two recent data points help to support this assertion. The first is the disproportionate number of advanced degrees that women are earning in relation to men. Mark Perry of Carpe Diem shared a chart recently that shows that 139 women in the 25-29 year old group hold an advanced degree for every 100 men in that age group.

Perry also dug into the numbers related to equal pay and found that younger women are earning nearly on parity with men of the same age.

But for single workers who have never been married, the BLS reports that women made 94.2 percent as much money as their male counterparts in 2008. Equal Pay Day would fall on January 22 for these single females, almost three months earlier than the official, unadjusted Equal Pay Day of April 20 for all women. For a separate BLS category of single workers, those with “no children under 18 years old and whose marital status includes never married, divorced, separated and widowed,” women earned 95.6 percent as much as their male counterparts in 2008. Equal Pay Day for that group of single female workers would fall even earlier, on January 19, only a few weeks into the year.

The purpose of these data points isn’t to devalue the generations-long work to give women equal opportunity. It’s to acknowledge that it’s an appropriate time for the focus to shift.

I was struck by this recently when I found myself at a cocktail party hosted by The White House Project the evening before its Epic Awards Gala in New York.

The room was filled with a diverse group of notable and remarkable women, not the least of whom was Marie Wilson, one of the founders of The White House Project. The purpose of the organization is to prepare and present women for positions of leadership; Wilson believes that if women can fill one-third of the leadership positions in government and business, then the national dialogue would shift dramatically…and for the better.

I was at the cocktail party because of my relationship with a notable woman; my wife Tami recently joined to the corporate council of The White House Project. The video below from the Epic Awards gives you a brief feel for what TWHP does.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR6IVvDOsAM

As the cocktail party wound down, I spent a little time talking with a very passionate and engaging woman from Texas who is spearheading recognition of the anniversary of the 19th Amendment. She is an executive with a large technology company and spoke about how, just as she is entering the prime of her career, she’s confronted with the decision of whether or not to continue to commit time and energy to an organization that can’t advance women.

I probed around that point: What is it that keeps your company from becoming an attractive place to build a career?

“They don’t know what to do with us,” she said.

Her comment wasn’t colored with bravado, resentment or frustration. She was as puzzled by the organization’s inability to know what to do with a talented, ambitious woman as she believes the organization is puzzled by her.

Over my career, I’ve worked with very successful and effective women, many of whom have had positions of significant responsibility. I’ve witnessed their struggle for recognition and equality. Sometimes I’ve helped and sometimes I’ve hindered. What I have learned over the years is that the greatest reward that an organization can give women is the feeling of flexibility without punishment. I’ve also witnessed how challenging the embedded culture of organizations can be.

As I listened to Marie Wilson talk about The White House Project, I had a new sense of the power that women’s advocacy in business could have, and the benefit of organized and thoughtful dialogue around the questions of women in leadership.

The question is whether business will respond and engage in this dialogue with authenticity and integrity.

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