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Role models for women more accessible than ever

Today marks the 101st anniversary of International Women's Day. It's a day when people around the world host events with the goal to inspire women and to celebrate their achievements. And while significant headway has been made in terms of women's rights, progress continues to wane in the area of women in business.

A study by Grant Thornton International on the status of women in leadership roles at the top private companies shows that in 2011 only 20 per cent of those at the top were women. That's a 24 per cent drop from the previous year. In the U.S., a mere 3.6 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Women continue to make up an almost equal share of the workforce, but represent the largest share of low- wage workers.

So what will it take to reverse the trend?

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There's much discussion about the need for more female role models in high-level positions. Experts will argue women need to feel more comfortable talking about their accomplishments and getting out there in a much more visible way. In the past, I've argued that women need to be profiled more in the press and that business magazines should feature more female CEOs on their covers.

But as I contemplated it from a personal perspective – zeroing in on the women who inspire me today – I began to view the issue slightly differently. Rather than bemoan the shortage of successful female business leaders to look up to, we need to leverage what we do through social media.

Think about how networking and mentoring used to work: We would ask someone to be our mentor and, if we were lucky, meet with that person for lunch once a month. Or we would attend a luncheon event, for example, to hear someone speak and then return to our day job, never to engage with that person again.

But the advent of social media has changed everything, including the one-way dialogue. Today we all have the opportunity to learn and draw inspiration from some of the most sought-after and successful business women in the world on a daily basis. All we have to do is follow them on Twitter or 'Like' them Facebook.

I think about Sheryl Sandberg, the chief financial officer at Facebook, who I had the chance to meet at an up-close and personal roundtable luncheon. She was amazing. You just have to watch her now-famous TED Talk on why we have too few female leaders to understand why I consider her one of the most inspiring women I have ever met.

The beauty of social media is that my relationship with Sheryl didn't end at the one roundtable event. I am friends with her on Facebook and read articles she recommends and insights she posts regularly.

As a female entrepreneur, I also consider Arianna Huffington – who I follow on Twitter – an incredible female leader. She's funny, smart and says exactly what's on her mind. Born in Greece, she immigrated to the United States before starting Huffington Post in 2005. Her hard work and fearlessness helped grow the site to attract 25 million visitors every month. AOL took notice and bought the Huffington Post for $315-million (U.S.), making Ms. Huffington the head of the combined media company. Her's is an incredible story which I heard first-hand at the 2010 Women's Executive Network Top 100 event.

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On the anniversary of International Women's Day, I encourage young women and entrepreneurs to take advantage of social media and seek out mentors who will feed their passion for business. If role models truly make a difference and are needed to reverse the trend of why we have so few women in top leadership roles in Canada, don't wait for them to come to you. There are influential women from different backgrounds, industries and walks of life out there sharing their stories and advice. All you have to do is find them and engage with them and hopefully over time, their bite-size bursts of wisdom will inspire you to grow as a woman and business leader.

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