Fortune editor at large Carol Loomis interviewed investing pioneer Warren Buffett at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit this morning in Southern California. Loomis raised the question of gender imbalance in corporate boardrooms and executive suites, and Buffett used pointed language to made clear that he knows he owes his exalted position to more than his extraordinary smarts and work ethic.
“I was born in 1930. I won the ovarian lottery,” he said, using a catchy term he coined a few years ago. “I was born in the United States. … I was born white. … I was born male. … I had all kinds of luck.”
Buffet also pointed out that for most of American history, our economy has chugged along using only half of its available ingenuity and labor. “One of the things that encourages me about our country,” he said, “is that for over that half [our history] we wasted half our talent. If we got where we did by 1920 using only half our talent, imagine what we can do by using all of it.”
He went on to mention a “terrific” young woman who was a recent hire, who came on board about a year and a half ago. (If she was able to recognize herself with that brief description, she’s probably having the best work day of her life right now.) “She has a chance to do now what my sisters did not in the 1930s,” Buffett said. “My sisters are smarter than I am, and our parents loved them with the same intensity they loved me,” he added, but the expectations of both parents and teachers was simply lower for women back then.
“That day is largely over,” Buffett added. “It’s in transformation, but as you look around here” – a large room filled with female executives – “you can see that transformation is coming along.”
Buffett clearly gets that while progress is being made, there’s more work to be done. As he put it today, “Women are still an underutilized resource.” That recognition is important, especially when it’s made in a public forum, but it’s not a solution. Currently, Berkshire Hathaway’s 12-person board includes two women.