Opinion: To reach the top, girls need financial literacy

Of the Fortune 100 companies, 72 have no

Of the Fortune 100 companies, 72 have no women in their top roles. Photo Credit: iStock

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Women, take note. You are 50 percent of the population, but in America's wealthiest companies you have only 18 percent of the top executive jobs.

That's one eye-opener from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's The Wharton School of business and the IE Business School in Madrid, published recently in the Harvard Business Review. To make us feel better, the study underscores that in 1980, female representation was zero -- so 18 percent is an improvement.

Meanwhile, Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women and business, reports that women make up only 17 percent of corporate board memberships.

Other studies focus on the poor representation of women at major technology centers like Silicon Valley, where just under 3 percent of venture capitalists are female. And though women are moving up slightly faster than men -- securing executive positions about three years earlier in their careers than their male colleagues -- few get to the very top. Many, instead, become stuck at senior management levels in the legal, human resources or public relations divisions, and these aren't paths to the executive suite.

So how do we change the balance sheet? Maybe we're having the wrong conversation. For too long women have been arguing with men about discrimination, inequality, reproductive rights, shared responsibilities, political participation and a host of important issues related to the central tenet -- inarguably the right tenet -- that women deserve the same opportunities as men to succeed. But we have undervalued one key to success: money.

Women and girls today need the financial tools and financial literacy to understand money -- and to earn it.

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The first step: Teach more economics in high school and college. Young women have to speak the lingo of finance. When women aren't fluent in the language of money and budgets, they are often absent when decisions are made regarding the allocation of funds. In many for-profit companies and not-for-profit entities, women end up managing publicity or marketing, but they have little voice on the finance and capital spending sides of an organization.

Finance shouldn't be a foreign language. Beginning in middle school and continuing in high school, girls need to be taught basic financial concepts. They need to learn about interest rates, credit scores, fixed income, discretionary costs and other economic realities such as compound interest, tax-deferments, insurance copays, deductible expenses and so on. If nothing else, it will help them choose a health care plan.

Girls need to know about debt before they face it. The accumulation of funds and the avoidance of debt is a prerequisite to starting an enterprise; therefore, effectively utilizing debt is an extremely important component of business success.

Financial literacy is finally making its way into curricula. But the teaching cannot fall only on the education system. Mothers have to be literate enough to explain to their daughters more than just how to write a check, but how to balance a checkbook -- and which kind of expenses can be financed effectively and which should be avoided at all costs. Overextended credit problems plague college students and lead to debt. College women should feel comfortable launching a career that leads to making money -- and funding their eventual retirement.

As American women, we have a responsibility to be role models for our daughters and girls everywhere in the world. Saturday is International Women's Day. Let's put some "common cents" into the discussion and raise women's financial literacy. It's an investment that will pay off in the long run.

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Patrice Hirsch Feinstein is a financial educator and former Medicare official. Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.



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