Women’s Equality Day commemorates the struggle for women to be heard. While the basis of this day stems from voter rights and equal representation, the power of the message envelops every corner in the life of women. Our ongoing fight to be part of meaningful conversations and the subsequent decisions is a battle that seemingly never ends. We are less often invited to the table and more often finding ways to insert ourselves when and how we can, often with a fight.

This struggle is visible too in obtaining positions of leadership. As of 2021, only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. While that number has grown over the last three years, it’s a tremendously slow increase in the whole context. According to the Women’s Institute for Leadership, women represent 45% of the workforce yet only hold 24% of leadership positions globally, with the U.S. averaging 21%.

Research and data prove that companies with a more diverse workforce, specifically women in leadership roles, perform far better financially and achieve greater employee satisfaction than those lacking diversity and female leadership. This is because female leaders provide a different skill set than their male counterparts, and those skillsets directly link to improved overall performance.

This creates a strong business case for bringing more women into leadership positions while also developing female leaders from the beginning of their careers.

So how can we promote both the development and the advancement of women to leadership roles? We’ve compiled some of our top approaches to bring your organization forward and empower everyone to build and nurture new leadership, so everyone has a voice.

1.   Identify Candidates and Build the Pipeline

Get proactive by identifying current and future candidates already inside the organization. Those who are qualified for leadership roles now should always be considered. Those identified as having good potential should align to a solid development plan to get them into leadership roles in the future. And if the talent pool inside is slim, go outside and seek out candidates at all levels to boost the pipeline and increase the odds of leadership roles filled by women.

2.   Be Deliberate About Hiring and Promotion Goals

It’s important to set goals for both hiring and promotions and regularly measure against those targets. Assuming you’re on track only to find at the end of a cycle that hiring or promotions have lagged negatively impacts the pace and the effects these targets can have. Set the goal, share it with those who have skin in the game, and follow up to ensure progress is made. When it comes to promotions, if these aren’t occurring with female candidates, ask yourself why not. Often the failure is in those making the assessments or those defining the development plans that get women promoted.

3.   Ensure Qualified Women are Considered for Every Leadership Role

When leadership roles are available, the candidate pool must include qualified women every time. The level of diversity in the selection should always be a solid mix that can bring a unique perspective and not just the same thinking time and time again. Diversity in ideas, approaches, and creativity comes from variations in the individuals represented. Coach those responsible for lining up candidates to aim for 50% female where possible. Only then will we start to see that same percentage in top leadership across Fortune 500s.

4.   Develop Actionable Professional Development Plans

Corporate professional development plans can fall flat far too many times. Managers don’t always give these tools the attention they deserve so good employees can build a meaningful career that speaks to their strengths. Plans must be actionable and offer various growth programs aimed at building skills, expertise, and exposure. If learning opportunities are lacking, employees turn to companies willing to provide more. Ensure the development plans for women have equal opportunities to their male counterparts and offer stretch projects typically given to others.

5.   Give Good Feedback with Clear Path Forward

Performance reviews can be a complete waste of time if the managers giving them don’t offer a clear path forward. That means being unmistakable about whether they can be up for promotions and when, what it will take to get there, and what things might set them back. If a woman doesn’t have a roadmap to leadership, you’re setting her up for failure. Instead, make it easier to see a path, clear the way of unnecessary obstacles, and watch her thrive.

6.   Advocate and Mentor Potential Female Leaders

There’s still a culture of the boy’s network across corporate America. Men are more likely to have another male leader advocate for them and their career growth. It’s far more challenging for women to find advocates that can support their advancement. If you’re able to mentor or champion women inside your organization, commit to the responsibility, be consistent in your support, and seek opportunities to endorse and encourage her progression. When she rises, so will you.

7.   Encourage Women to Go for It

For whatever reason, we women tend to only apply to positions where we feel it’s a 100% match. Whereas men will go for roles where they have little to no relevant experience, knowing full well, they will learn on the job. Women need encouragement to go for opportunities and the confidence to understand they will figure it out. We need others to remind us that the biggest hurdle is just to say yes and go for it, then take the rest one day at a time. Usually, the best experiences occur when we step outside our comfort zone and take a chance. Be someone who encourages that rising star to go for it.

8.   Build the Proper Growth Environment

Growth requires a lot of different factors, not the least of which is the right culture. Unfortunately, there are still far too many corporate environments that don’t support or nurture the development of women beyond a certain level. Take an honest look at your own company’s culture. Ask the women of all levels what they are experiencing. See if they feel there is strong support in their development, or perhaps only support in pockets. Then do what you can to shift, enhance, or lead the way so that more women can move up the ranks without topping out before becoming a leader.

9.   Create an Equal Playing Field

Part of having the right growth environment means creating an equal and level playing field for all. First, ask yourself, are the male leaders doing more to develop other men in the organization while leaving women to struggle? If so, why is that? Next, examine every interaction occurring with women. Are they offered a seat at the table? Are their ideas actively sought and listened to? Are they provided opportunities with stretch projects or to lead a special assignment so they can build new skills and expertise? Are there women in need where your leadership and experience would make for a great mentor relationship? If you have the time to mentor a few people, be sure half of them are women. Everyone plays a part in leveling the playing field and ensuring opportunities are equal.

10. Eliminate Bias of Any Kind

Limiting beliefs and biases about female leaders are damaging to career opportunity and progression. These can come in women being labeled bossy, bitchy, or mean, while men are labeled confident, powerful, and strong. And when women are judged based on age, it’s even worse. Whether they are younger or older, every woman deserves the same opportunities as men. They must be allowed to become strong leaders the same way as the men without the backlash of unjust labels and limiting beliefs. When we see bias happening, it’s critical to call it out as stigmatizing women unfairly and stating it’s unacceptable and not tolerated. Our language and behavior can set the standard. Becoming measured and practiced in how we speak about women leaders in the presence of those we influence is an important step.

Our actions can have a ripple effect on the rest of the organization; therefore, we must inventory how we behave as leaders. Others watch us and mirror our style, our words, and our behavior. Whether in private or with a larger audience, we can do better when it comes to advancing women in leadership positions. Assess what’s happening in your organization, look for opportunities to improve it, and be consistent and relentless in growing new talent. The world needs female leadership—at all levels.

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