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JOANNA WEISS

Can a simple idea mean big change for women?

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

How to help women succeed in the workplace? Arianna Huffington wants us to sleep better and meditate. Sheryl Sandberg wants us never to stop pushing, plus surround ourselves with photographs of normal-looking women.

Trish Karter wants to pull a bunch of CEOs into a room, grab them by the lapels, and give them a healthy shake.

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That’s the essence of Karter’s quixotic, fast-tracked, localized approach to solving two business-world problems at once: a persistent pay gap between women and men, and a glaring shortage of women on corporate boards. Karter, co-founder of the Dancing Deer Baking Company and a fixture in local leadership circles, has spearheaded a conference Wednesday morning called “Clearing the Path.” She has invited a specific group of people: about 120 CEOs of for-profit and not-for-profit companies in Massachusetts, representing some $30 billion in annual revenues.

Researchers will share the growing evidence that female leadership is good for business. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick will appear to lend moral support, and suggest that Massachusetts should take on the mission of leading the nation. Then the bigwigs will talk it out, honestly, behind closed doors. Two hours, in and out; no new organizations (there are plentyof thosealready) or catchphrases (enough with the leaning!).

It all highlights Karter’s implicit faith in the power of CEOs. When a boss settles on a priority, Karter told me, it becomes a priority. So in her ideal world, the bosses will emerge from the meeting, make quick calls to human resources, and order up equitable pay scales and expansive candidate searches. At their next board meetings, they’ll announce a new objective: Getting a certain percentage of women on the board by a certain date and time.

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Presto. Simple! Right? It’s easy to be skeptical. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter is skeptical, and she’s scheduled to speak at the event.

“I don’t think we should be hyping this . . . or talking about it as a new approach,” said Kanter, whose work focuses on leadership and change. Many groups do good work on women’s advancement, she said, and public handwringing sometimes overlooks the tremendous progress we’ve made in a short time: The fact that we have female presidents of MIT and Harvard and nobody blinks, the mere idea that you can invite a group of high-charging CEOs into a room to talk about women’s leadership . . . and they’ll come.

On the other hand, as Kanter acknowledges, we need to “move the needle on an indicator that seems ridiculously stuck.” She notes wryly that she’s become best known for her quip to Sandberg about what men can do to advance women’s leadership: the laundry.

But Kanter said progress also has to do with corporate practice — not just flextime and paternity leave and sheer numerical goals, but underlying culture, being open to different perspectives, treating people so well that they’ll stay.

Got that, CEOs? It’s a lot to cover in two hours. Trish Karter wants to think of today’s meeting as a jump-start. “The theory of change here,” she told me, “is that this probably looks like the green movement,” whose ideas circulated in small circles, got traction with reporters and advocacy groups, then reached a critical mass and went mainstream.

I pointed out that the environment remains the subject of conference after conference, study after study, decades of loud doomsaying, and still we might be doomed. How will “Clearing the Path” be different from every other conference on women that states the same goals and laments?

For one, Karter said, those conferences tend to be filled with women talking to women, not male CEOs open to listening.

For another, the pay gap ain’t climate change.

“There are all these intractable, unsolvable, imponderable struggles and problems on Earth,” Karter said. “This isn’t one of them.”

She’s right about that. I wish her well. I’d love to think that this will be the most productive two hours in the history of 21st-century business. But even if it isn’t, talking about the problem — with the bigwigs in the room — is at least a good way to start.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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