How women can change the work world

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- No question about it, women have come a long way from the days when Susan Bulkeley Butler first joined consulting firm Arthur Andersen (now Accenture). Back then, in 1965, "There were no female consultants. It was unheard of for a woman to fill any role except support staff," Butler recalls. "So, before they could hire me, my new bosses had to check with clients and make sure they could accept a 'man in a skirt.'" However reluctantly, the clients agreed, and 14 years later, Butler became Andersen's first female partner.

Today, Butler is CEO of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Institute for the Development of Women Leaders, a nonprofit based in Tucson, Ariz. that offers coaching and mentoring to women who want to crack the glass ceiling at work. Butler is also the author of a new book, Women Count: A Guide to Changing the World (Purdue University Press, $24.95). It's full of ideas for closing the gaps in earnings and opportunity that persist between men and women, even today, when the idea of regarding successful women as "men in skirts" seems as quaint as, say, rotary phones or 45 r.p.m. records.

I recently spoke with Butler about where professional women stand today, and what the next steps might be. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

It startled me to learn from your book that it was a woman named Catherine Littlefield Greene who invented the cotton gin -- not Eli Whitney, as everyone "knows." Are women more effective today at getting credit for their ideas?

Much better! I just saw some new research saying that single women in urban areas of the U.S. now earn as much as, or more than, their male peers. I'd like to think that means we're finally learning how to negotiate. But many women still make the same mistakes that have always held us back. For one thing, most women don't plan ahead the way men do. If you don't have a clear idea of what you want, and a plan for where you want to be in five years, to whom have you outsourced that? Women need to take the initiative and make things happen in their careers, rather just letting things happen.

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A big part of that is, who's on your team? Women often think that doing good work is enough to get them recognized and rewarded, so they tend not to make the extra "political" effort to create the alliances that could help them get credit for their contributions. By contrast, if you look closely at how men get ahead, you'll see that they're more likely to seek out high-profile assignments that will attract higher-ups' attention. They align themselves with influential people. Women need to get better at that.

In Women Count, you note that although women now make up half the workforce and more than half of all college graduates, men still hold 82% of senior management jobs. Let me play devil's advocate for a minute here: why would men be willing to relinquish any of the power they've always had? What's in it for them?

Well, it's funny -- I've had men tell me, "Every man should read your book." They're usually men with daughters and granddaughters who want young women starting out to have the best possible opportunities in life. But beyond that, there are practical business reasons why it makes sense to put women in leadership roles. Catalyst recently did a study showing that the big U.S. companies with the most female senior managers and board members are also the most profitable.

Talkback: Do you agree that most companies would be more successful if more women were in senior management jobs? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

That's not a coincidence. In today's marketplace, you absolutely need a diversity of viewpoints. Women come at problems differently than men do. We ask different questions. I think women are better at focusing on the long term rather than the short term, and that's important for tempering risky decisions. I wonder if Lehman Brothers would still be around if top management had included more "Lehman sisters," so to speak. Another thing is women excel at team building, and at really listening to other people. These are all traits that businesses need now more than ever.

The subtitle of your book is "A Guide to Changing the World." How can any one person change the world?

Anyone can change her small corner of it. I believe women need to be woven throughout the fabric of any organization that cares about success. This means that women should make up at least 30 to 40% of the working committees at all levels, the senior ranks, and the important income-generating jobs.

If that isn't the case where you work, what you can do is first understand where women are -- and aren't -- in the company. Then identify where women could have larger roles, and help define ways to get more women into those positions.

It's especially important to encourage women to be change agents, mentoring other women and helping them move up the way men have always helped each other. If you stand up and make sure your voice is heard, you can change your organization. Change your company, and you can change the world.

Talkback: Do you agree that most companies would be more successful if more women were in senior management jobs? Do you think your company will have a female CEO in the foreseeable future? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page