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March 25, 2010“If you want to understand the past, look at current conditions,” said PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at last night’s Catalyst Awards Dinner, quoting an old Chinese proverb. “But if you want to understand the future, look at today’s actions.”

All the great speeches and conversations about the Award-winning gender initiatives from Campbell Soup, Deloitte, RBC, and Telstra demonstrated a bright future for women in business. A lot of work remains to be done, but I left The Waldorf last night knowing we were a little closer to gender parity in business leadership.

The day was filled with engaging, inspirational, and sometimes hilarious moments. I appreciated the down-to-earth advice on men championing women from Frank McCloskey, Vice President of Diversity at Georgia Power. “It's a manager’s obligation to create a work environment where everyone is valued,” he told a standing-room crowd. “I hope y’all change your culture—if not, we’ll take your people,” he jibed.

Later that day, Irene Chang Britt, President of Campbell Soup, North America, discussed her views on work-life. Like me, she does not like to use the word “balance.” She prefers the term: “work-life integration.” After all, she said, “We’re all nuts if we think we’re balanced.”

During the Awards Conference luncheon, I took the stage with friend and Xerox Chairman Anne M. Mulcahy for a conversation about her life inside and outside the company. In front of a crowd of 500, Anne admitted that early on in her career, work-life proved difficult. “I had a desire to make it look easy—it wasn’t,” she said. “There are more things than work, and we should make time and space for them.”

Anne recalled that she was at first a reluctant role model. “When I became CEO, I was asked all the time about women’s issues,” she said, explaining that she considered herself “Xerox’s CEO”— not a “woman CEO.” But this soon changed when a close friend asked her to speak up in support of women. “If you don’t, who does?” her friend said. For Anne, it was a revelation. “I’m a huge believer that you have a responsibility. I have been supported by other women.”

What was the secret to her success at Xerox? She said she learned a lot more from her mistakes than her victories. “I tend to be a better learner with pain, than success,” she said. As a boss, she allowed people to learn in a similar way. “I give people room to make mistakes—provide an environment where they can demonstrate what they believe in.”

Anne also spoke at length about barriers holding back gender initiatives in corporations. “I worry more about complacency than everything else,” she said. “Never get confused about results, and hold yourself accountable. Then we’ll start to move quicker.” She warned: “If we sit back and say let the best athlete win, then we will lose ground.”

Anne’s allusion to sports was apt. During my dinner speech, I also used a sports metaphor to get my point across about disparities in the workforce. After rolling the 2010 Catalyst Awards Dinner Video, I told the evening crowd of 1,500 to indulge me in a thought experiment. “Imagine you’re watching your daughter, your granddaughter, or your niece run in a track meet,” I said. But instead of lining up on the start line, your loved-one was placed 100 yards back. How would that make you feel?

I told the audience that if my daughters, who were nationally ranked speed skaters, had to start a race behind the other competitors, you had better believe I’d storm the track! But in the business world, we allow this to happen. As Pipeline’s Broken Promise reveals, right from their very first jobs out of business school, women’s positions, compensation, and career satisfaction lagged those of their male peers.

I told the crowd that now it’s our job to make sure that the game is fair. Companies should proactively recalibrate—for those who negotiate and those who don’t, for those who have an aggressive sponsor and those who don’t. They should look at positions, at compensation, and ask themselves: are the women where they ought to be?

I believe that women are not looking for a head start. They just want and deserve to be toe-to-toe at the starting line. Catalyst Award winners, past and present, understand this.

Jim Skinner, McDonald’s CEO and Chairman of the Awards Dinner, stressed that “fostering diversity is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. It’s the only thing to do for the success of your business.” In closing the Awards Dinner, Jim challenged the executives in the audience to “reach out to others … Tell your stories, inspire others, and bring in new leaders. In short, be a catalyst yourself.”

I couldn’t agree more.