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8 Ways Organizations Can Advance More Women

Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan on June 20, 2017 10:30 AM

It’s not just about diversity and inclusion. It’s about business performance. And when organizations fall short on promoting women, placing them in leadership roles, and including them on boards, the bottom line suffers. 

In fact, data from an extensive study of Fortune 500 firms shows that companies with the best record for promoting women outperformed industry revenue averages by 46 percent.

Yet, even with the business case for advancing more women intact, our workplace remains stuck - spinning its wheels when it comes to improving recruitment, retention and promotion rates for women.

If organizations want to remain competitive, profitable and thriving, they can no longer afford inaction. 

While nearly half of working women say they’d like to one day be CEO, only 6% of the current CEOs of the S&P 500 are women.  And despite men and women entering the workforce at near equal proportions, only 17% of working women are currently in the pipeline to reach the C-Suite.   Women just aren't getting there.  Why?  Unsupportive, dissatisfying work cultures, lack of effective management and mentorship, inadequate leadership training, struggles with work-life balance, the need for greater flexibility, and the absence of clearly defined career tracks. 

Here are eight ways to shift policies, practices  and norms that will keep more women in the pipeline. 

1.  Face the facts: get a clear picture of where your organization stands
Conduct a gender assessment to identify gaps in recruiting, promotion and retention, and survey both men and women as to  their attitudes and experiences when it comes to management, culture and career development. Identify areas of greatest need and focus on those first. 

2. Remember there’s power in three
According to IFC’S 2016 SheWorks report, research has shown that 30 percent representation of women is the proportion needed for “critical mass” to be reached in any group setting, including senior management circles. The same is true for boards - adding one woman isn’t enough. Three or more are needed to not only normalize the presence of women as leaders, but also to make real change. 

RELATED: 5 Things We're Still Talking About After International Women's Day

3. Put touchpoints in place before, during and at the end of leave
When women are given assurances that their organization is actively engaged in the design, progression and success of their careers, they are more inclined to stay.  The same principles apply to each phase of maternity or other planned leave. Providing a clear path, and involving multiple levels of management for the successful transition before, during and at the end of leave, results in higher satisfaction and retention, and ultimately greater career growth.  

4. Identify women leaders earlier in their careers
Do the women at your organization know about the leadership opportunities you offer? Do they hear about it regularly from colleagues, immediate managers, from senior and executive management, and from HR? Not only do multi-layered leadership ambassadors ensure women are getting the ongoing information and invitation they need, they are also able to identify potential leaders earlier, allowing for greater opportunity to nurture and succeed.

RELATED: Want More Women in Leadership? Here's How You Can Get Started

5. Get more women back into the game through returnships
What about the millions of women – many management and senior level - who have chosen to take a break to help raise their families, and are now ready to re-enter the workforce?  The “returnship” is a concept that is thriving across many industries. Reach out to past female employees, tap into current employee networks or industry associations to source candidates. Or, consider utilizing a staffing company specializing in returnship placement.

6. Foster mentoring AND sponsoring
Women need more mentors – and more sponsors.  This Forbes article argues that women don't have enough colleagues speaking up for them in the room– bringing up their name, inviting them to the meeting, advocating for their promotion. The value of mentoring to women is proven – be it in pairs or groups, inside your organization or at a broader industry level. But don’t overlook the power of sponsorship in the equation.

7. Support work-life integration – focus on flexibility and benefits
More than half of working mothers say that the option to have flexible hours is a major factor when taking a job. While work-life conflict crosses gender lines, women are still disproportionately impacted when it comes to family care issues – in all fields.  Implementing programs and policies that enable employees to create flexible work arrangements and receive family care benefits, better retains and engages female talent - and keeps their career trajectories on track to reach leadership positions.

8. Recognize none of it will work unless your organizational culture works
According to research compiled in a recent Women in Leadership Today brief from Bersin by Deloitte, “organizational culture is the most important driver of leadership development, impacting business and talent outcomes more strongly than any other factor.” The companies that will succeed in advancing more women are those that create a culture built on listening to employees, giving them the teaching and tools to understand the challenges of diversity and overcome bias, provide total transparency and honest measurement, and take proactive responsibility for what must change.

Engaging in open, active and robust conversation about women in leadership not only promotes a culture of diversity and inclusion, it ensures an organization's long-term financial success.  And perhaps, the most important voice in the equation is that of women in middle management - as the IFC SheWorks report terms it, "the linchpin of a successful gender diversity strategy."  Critical to an organization's operational performance, they serve as the bridge connecting both sides of the talent pipeline,  serving as role models and leadership candidates. 

We need to keep them in, so we can keep listening,  keep changing, and keep moving all women ahead. 

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Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan

As Director, Sales and Marketing at, Heidi is responsible for developing innovative, results-driven programs for Care@Work – a consumer-centered portfolio of family care for employers and their diverse workforce. Passionate about helping HR professionals improve the lives of their employees, Heidi follows and writes about the top trends and research impacting both employees and employers in the workplace, including the future of work, consumerism and HR, building employer brands, pay equity and paid leave policy, and company culture. Prior to joining, Heidi led marketing teams at a variety of technology companies including Constant Contact. She lives north of Boston with her husband Brian and their “daughter” Lexi – a 10 lb. Shih-Tzu therapy dog.