Martha Stewart and Charlotte Beers rock Indianapolis

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Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) In Indianapolis recently the Indiana Governor's Conference for Women featured a lunchtime talk given by Martha Stewart and Charlotte Beers, formerly of the State Department and CEO of Ogilvy&Mather. Both women were introduced as 'legends' and their session was very funny -- the two make a comic double act. But the intention was serious: To share wisdom and experience about what it takes to get women to the top.

It's hard and often dangerous to generalize from personal experience -- and after all, how much room is there in the world for more than one Martha Stewart? But one thing Beers said resonated with her audience and with me: She argued that, when it comes to diversity, it's critical to include men in the discussion. Without them, the conversation can't move forward and what little progress we've seen will stall.

I agree with her, insofar as the commitment of men to diversity is critical if its full impact is to be captured. The business case for a diverse workforce is simple: A broader range of experience, perspectives and thinking styles will create a broader range of opportunities and solutions. A more varied workforce has greater collective intelligence. But this is true only if the difference between contributors is preserved and cherished.

When Beers argues that men have to be part of the discussion, I think she means that men have to appreciate that the different styles and approaches women bring is an advantage -- not a problem. That women are different is the point. As such, they shouldn't be maligned, bullied and teased just because they aren't guys. And the freedom that women seek at work -- to be women -- offers more freedom to men too.

"If we don't get men in the game, the dialogue's not open," Beers insisted. I'm sure she's right -- but the open dialogue will need to explore how much of what we do, and how we do it, needs to change. Our entire way of doing business has been designed by men since the industrial revolution. That is no one's fault, it's just history. But the question we face now is: Just how prepared are men to share power and to change the way we work?

The young women in the audience loved listening to these two legends reminisce and tease each other. The fact that Beers and Stewart are friends is key: Women can and do support one another and when they do, they're more successful. But for diversity to deliver on its promise, this great conversation does need contributions from men who are willing to be open and honest about why there is so much resistance to change. Without that, we may all be entertained but we won't progress. There have always been and always will be exceptional women who make it to the top. What we're still waiting for is the broader change that makes this normal -- not the stuff of legends.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.