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September 28, 2010Earlier today, I testified before the Joint Economic Committee in Congress. No, Stephen Colbert was not there right along with me!

The hearing, titled “New Evidence on the Gender Pay Gap for Women and Mothers in Management,” examined, among other topics, new findings by Catalyst on pay and corporate leadership gaps. These gaps persist across most industries—and have closed at a glacial pace.

The latest Catalyst data on women in Fortune 500 companies is alarming. Although women are 46.4% of total Fortune 500 employees, they are 13.5% of Executive Officers, hold 15.2% of board seats, and are 2.6% of CEOs. If inequities persist in America’s most powerful and influential companies, they are present in smaller businesses too.

On the issue of the pay gap, I testified how in 2009, women made up only 6.3% of top-earning Executive Officers within the F500 and discussed how our “best and brightest” women—M.B.A. grads—still earn less than equally qualified men, regardless of parenthood status. On average, women earn $4,600 less in their first post-M.B.A. job. And this pay gap widens over time.

To help explain to Congress why these gaps exist—and have remained largely steady over time—I recounted a simple test I often perform during lectures. I ask audiences to close their eyes and picture a business leader. How often do they imagine a woman or someone ethnically or racially diverse? Not very.

I doubt many lawmakers attending the hearing did either.

And this is the problem. The notion that women are less strong and less committed—and that trusting their judgment to lead is risky—remains entrenched. Too many people—women and men alike—think of a male when asked to think of a leader. It’s engrained in our conscious and reinforced by media and the images we see everyday. But it needs to change.

By shining a light on pay and leadership gaps, I hope my testimony will inspire the change-makers in Washington to rise to the challenge. Holding a hearing on these issues was a great step forward.