I recently spent two days at Circular Summit, a conference for executive and entrepreneurial women spearheaded by Elizabeth Gore (Entrepreneur in Residence, Dell) and Carolyn Rodz (Founder of Circular Board). After the conference, I entered an interesting conversation with the Chief of Staff for Gore's husband James, who currently serves as Sonoma County Supervisor.

I posed this question to his Chief of Staff: "What do James' constituents care about most?" I thought, of course, it would be something about the education system, crime, jobs, or housing prices.

"Honestly," she replied in a way that braced me for surprise, "Roads. They call and complain about the roads. The potholes, the construction, anything that has to do with roads." She grinned, "Crazy, isn't it?"

As a female executive and co-founder of companies, I've had a lot of conversations over the years about how we need "gender equality" in terms of everything from access to capital to salaries.

Two months ago, I moderated a panel at the SXGood Hub for the UN Foundation and Qualcomm Wireless Reach about how we can work together to empower women and girls through technology, and what this all really means. Then, at the Circular Summit, this concept of empowering women came up again; because truth be told, when you look at some of the data, it's abysmal:

  • Women receive less than 3% of venture funding
  • Less than 4% of the S&P 500 have female executives
  • The proportion of stories focusing on women has held relatively steady at only 10% since 2000

The data showing what women can do for their communities and local economies, however, is mind-boggling. Jane Wurwand, who started skincare line Dermalogica with her husband more than 30 years ago, reminded us during the Summit:

"The single biggest game changer is when women are financially independent. When a woman has a dollar in her hand, a woman will put 90 cents back into her family and community. For men, this number is roughly 36 cents."

Globally, this is also true. Qualcomm Wireless Reach programs have seen the impact an "empowered woman" can have on her community if given access to technology (particularly mobile broadband) as well as financial support. A focus on mobile broadband can break down common barriers of skill and access, enabling women to participate in the flourishing mobile economy. In fact, bringing 600 million additional women and girls online could boost global GDP by up to USD$13-18 billion. That's astounding!

So what gives? If the outcomes are outsized in terms of the positive impact females have on business, then what's the problem? Before we jump into technology or financial solutions that will enable women to achieve success at the same rate as men, we are best served to examine another aspect of the story.

I believe we are failing to understand the importance of "The Road." It seems so simple, rudimentary even, but it's fundamental to the cause. The Road should give us an equal opportunity (mechanism) by which to reach our destination (goal) with as little intrusion as possible. So before we can understand why we aren't reaching the finish line in the same numbers as men, we must look at the roadblocks stopping women along the way.

For starters, here are a few:

  1. Self-doubt
  2. Being apologetic about asserting power
  3. Lack of support from professional communities
  4. Access to mentors
  5. Not understanding how, or being afraid, to negotiate
  6. Unconscious bias
  7. Finding partners to expedite scaling
  8. Believing that we all should aspire to be Unicorns

While many of these roadblocks seem largely psychologically driven in nature, their impact cannot be undermined. This Road full of obstacles is detrimental to progress.

Would we be better served, then, to drive conversations about female empowerment by first addressing these habitual roadblocks?

Here's an example: Instead of coaching a woman on "The 5 Things Every VC Looks For In A Company" (a do-this and do-that approach), first coach her on how to showcase her talents and talk about her value in ways that will resonate with investors. If she knows how to talk confidently about her value, this will permeate every aspect of her company.

Here's another: If you're a female entrepreneur, instead of focusing on putting together a Board of Advisors, first decide what your vision and purpose is so you choose the right partners, advisors, and investors, and can stand firm in your belief about what you've got to offer. You should be in the driver's seat on The Road.

And this may seem presumptuous, but I would suggest it's best to assume we already have the power and that we don't actually need empowerment. Another word for empowerment: Permission. If we come to the table as beggars, acting undeserved of attention, that's how we will be treated. This is a psychological issue rooted in self-doubt that has to be willfully and repeatedly refuted on a personal level.

So when we speak to young women about empowerment, the better approach is to let them know they are empowered already. The question is actually: "What are you going to do with that power?" It's an entirely different conversation that presupposes The Road has been cleared for them.

We've got to start from the ground up and remove the roadblocks before we start handing out water and medals near the finish line.

Once The Road is clear, we have a much better shot at reaching our destination.

Published on: May 5, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.