Reevaluating the Leadership Gap: When Measuring Women's Success, Are We Holding the Ruler Incorrectly?

Have you ever been at a dinner party, and met a couple in which the man is a successful businessperson and the woman has chosen to be a stay-at-home mother? You begin to converse with them and realize quickly that the wife is far more interesting than her husband. She usually has a JD or a liberal arts degree in international relations that she has never used, and her grasp of topics ranges from mothering to clothing, entertainment, and even politics. As a CEO who rose through the ranks rather quickly, I'm still always pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of conversation I can have with bright women who chose a different path than mine.

Organizations like the Center for American Progress cite statistics such as, while women make up 50.8% of the population and hold 60% of undergraduate degrees, they are only 14.6% of the executive officers in the nation. They use these numbers to call out the gender discrepancy that persists in the country, and they're right. The differences are huge. But are we defining progress for women correctly? Perhaps when we're measuring words like success, leadership, and power, we're holding the ruler the wrong way.

I was delighted to see the recent article by Patricia Sellers, who oversees Fortune's Most Powerful Women program, in which she reminds us that women define success horizontally rather than vertically. In our office, we discuss this concept often, referring to it as range. This is the value an employee brings to an organization through her diverse experiences, skill sets, and passions. It is about taking those unique and varied talents and viewpoints and forming a power structure that is directed towards achieving a certain goal. Some of the greatest female leaders I've known have worked below me displaying phenomenal crisis and servant leadership.

When redefining leadership in this fashion, it helps women to take the terms ambition, success, and power, and reframe them to reflect this horizontal view. For example, many people confuse ambition with drive, calling on women to have more ambition in their careers, to fight the male-controlled power structure to ascend the steep, narrow ladder to the corner office. Ambition focuses on the individual and her personal success above other achievements. Drive, on the other hand, while it can be directed towards personal achievement, also refers to determination and the intrinsic reward associated with impacting the world. Women are often more driven - pushing towards achieving a greater good - than ambitious, and this is something that should be fostered and encouraged.

The term power is often misused as well. There are different kinds of power. For instance, there is the power that comes with decision-making. As a leader, I do understand the importance of giving everyone the chance to wield this authority. I like to share decision-making power, because it's lonely at the top. It's also not always fun being in charge of making decisions. There is, however, another form of power, which is found internally. This type of power is crucial in helping women cultivate and define for themselves what "success" and "power" mean to them personally--to be powerful right where they are.

As we head into the 2016 election cycle, many people embrace the possibility of two women from different professional backgrounds competing for the highest position in the U.S. Some suggest that electing a female president, whether they favor Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina, would be a powerful way to bridge the leadership gap. However, while the symbolism of this victory is not lost on me, pitting two women against one another for a single high-ranking position does not seem the most effective way to enact change. As I've written before, competition between women for what is perceived to be a limited number of seats at the table has been one of the great detriments to the women's movement.

Hillary Clinton often references shattering the glass ceiling in an upward ascent (seemingly indifferent to who gets pelted by the shards raining down), but why isn't she using her voice to teach women how to harness and use this personal and internal power? As a takeoff on the "Hillary keyboard," in which she uses the hashtag #ICan'tI'mBusyBreakingGlassCeilings, in our office we joke #ICan'tI'mBusyBreakingDownWallsAndOpeningDoors.

I am excited to see the success of women like Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton, and know we will see a female president in the coming years. However, when discussing leadership, I am reminded of one of my mottos: "What goes up must come down." The path to the corner office is steep, let alone the oval office. When you do reach that summit, everyone is vying to push you off the pedestal. It is your range, depth, and breadth of experiences (good and bad) as well as grounding that enable you to rebalance and provide cushioning and a base so that, almost like a trampoline, if you do fall, you can spring back up to your next endeavor.

In the end, Fiorina and Clinton's success or failure in the election will not derive from their power in business and political background, but instead from their range of differing experiences and viewpoints, both personal and professional, that best engage and appeal to the widest breadth of voter concerns.

Written by Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation CEO Lori J. Bertman (@LoriBertman) and Program Officer Rachel A. Pickens (@MsRachelAyn).