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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Want an enthusiasm infusion?

Try spending time with about 800 women, all of whom are passionate about their careers, their companies, and the industry in which they work.

That’s the scene here, where the Network of Executive Women (NEW) has convened with record attendance for its Leadership Summit 2010. Last evening was just the beginning, but the brio with which the women seem to be embracing every moment seems remarkable. And there seems to be a genuine feeling of...well, sisterhood, that binds them together. I’ve not been to one of these national meetings before, and I must admit that the enthusiasm is almost startling. Not to mention contagious.

Ironically, NEW kicks off its Leadership Summit as the New York Times reports on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study saying that over the past decade, women actually have made little progress climbing the management ladder. “As of 2007, the latest year for which comprehensive data on managers was available, women accounted for about 40 percent of managers in the United States work force,” the Times writes. “In 2000, women held 39 percent of management positions. Outside of management, women held 49 percent of the jobs in both years.”

Meanwhile, women are making some progress on the salary front, as “the gap between what men and women earn has shrunk over the last few decades. Full-time women workers closed the gap to 80.2 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2009, up from just 62.3 cents in 1979 ... Across the work force, the pay gap was also slightly wider for managers who had children. Managers who were mothers earned 79 cents of every dollar paid to managers who were fathers, after adjusting for things like age and education. This gap has stayed the same since at least 2000.”

The GAO study also indicates that “on average, female managers had less education, were younger and were more likely to be working part time than their male counterparts,” according to the Times.

What this means is that NEW needs to be - and in fact aims to be - far more than a cheering section. There is serious work to be done here, especially if the implications of the GAO study are true, and the exceptional talent in the room last night is being undervalued and under-compensated.

Here’s a hopeful stat. Over the past half-dozen years or so, NEW has raised through a variety of means some $70,000 that has been used to fund a number of scholarships to women pursuing careers in the retailing and consumer products industries. This year, both through fund raising and an auction here, it is expected that NEW will begin closing in on $100,000.

One of the most interesting people I met here was Lashawndra Lawrence, one of three recipients of this year’s scholarships. She’s scheduled to graduate from Tuskegee University next May with a Masters degree in food science. Her goal is to become a research chef for a major food company and develop health, affordable food products to be used in treating chronic illnesses and preventing obesity.

I have to admit that I was glad to see that not everyone sees business advancement as emanating from an MBA.

(I was also glad to see something else. Because I’m speaking in one of NEW’s sessions today, I was treated to the frankly heart-warming sight of virtually every attendee walking around carrying a copy of “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies,” which was co-authored by Michael Sansolo and me. For an author, there is no more thrilling sight.)

More tomorrow...
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