The key to achieving gender diversity at all levels of an organization is to ensure the success of women leaders in the earliest stages of their management career.

The corporate world has made progress improving gender diversity and bringing an increasing number of women into leadership roles at the executive and C-suite level. As of McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report, women comprise 19 percent of executive leadership positions. 

Despite this small step toward gender diversity in the C-suite, women of color continue to face significant barriers to entry into leadership roles. According to the same McKinsey report, women of color represent only 4 percent of C-suite positions. And as of a 2019 Harvard Business Review study, there were no black women leading a Fortune 500 company.

Moreover, gender parity for all women remains elusive at lower and middle management, specifically within entry- and mid-level leadership roles. According to the most recent McKinsey data, women make up 48 percent of all entry-level hires but only 38 percent of first-level managers. 

What difference does that 10 percent make? 

A big one. Over the next five years, 1 million women will remain in entry-level or non-leadership roles while their male co-workers are promoted into more promising career paths. 

That long-term talent gap caused by the failure to promote women into entry- and mid-level management roles virtually guarantees that there will be a lack of qualified women for executive and C-suite leadership roles in the future. McKinsey refers to this talent gap as the “broken rung” on the leadership ladder.

Closing that long-term talent gap will have long-term benefits for organizational success.

But doing so requires more than simply pointing out unconscious bias, identifying hidden stereotypes and common microaggressions, and paying lip service to gender and racial equality. 

Instead, it requires a prolonged and multi-faceted commitment by both men and women leaders to identify the obstacles facing women in leadership roles, especially for women of color.  

Here are some actionable tools and strategies to help women leaders achieve success at the same rate as their male peers.

Senior Leaders Must Show the Way Toward Gender Diversity

The success of emerging women leaders depends heavily on the mid-level and senior managers (still predominantly white men) who are primarily responsible for their promotion. 

Thus, mid-level and senior leaders have an active role to play in ensuring that emerging women have the same opportunities for advancement, promotion, and career growth as their male co-workers.

Establish clear job performance evaluation criteria

According to Women in the Workplace 2018, women are less likely to get credit for successes and more likely to take criticism for failures. They often must provide more evidence of their competence and are more likely to have their judgement and decisions questioned.

These subtle barriers are even more common for women of color than for their white counterparts. For instance, women of color are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be mistaken for someone in a more junior role. According to the HBR, nearly 50 percent of black and Latina scientists report being mistaken for administrative or janitorial staff.

Ensuring that women are fairly evaluated compared to their male counterparts through the hiring and promotion process requires clear and unbiased evaluation criteria. Moreover, employees must have the opportunity to highlight bias and identify stereotypes when encountered. 

Analyze corporate HR data by gender AND by race

While many companies track pay and other HR data by gender or by race, very few track by both. Yet according to a recent Payscale study, women of color make less even than white women at the beginning of their careers, a trend which only widens throughout their careers. 

Tracking critical HR data by a full suite of metrics, including both gender and race, will highlight potentially hidden disparities and help ensure that women of color, in particular, do not “fall through the cracks” between gender and race. 

Actively prepare women for leadership roles

As with men, women are more likely to be promoted if they are actively coached on career advancement. Senior leaders must ensure that emerging women leaders are given the same opportunities as their male counterparts to showcase their abilities, stretch their roles, network with senior leaders, and promote their visibility at the executive level.

Develop nuanced strategies for sponsorship

Women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Many organizations have moved away from formal sponsorship programs because senior leaders can be wary of expending political capital on employees they may not be sure of 100 percent.

Mentorship versus sponsorship need not be an either-or proposition, however. 

As noted in a 2019 report in Harvard Business Review, sponsorship, when done thoughtfully and strategically, can — and should — evolve authentically through a range of professional “support” roles.  

Discover the value of diverse leadership styles

Understanding the various ways in which men and women work, communicate, and lead is a critical step in promoting and achieving gender parity. Incorporating and encouraging those differences provides strength and flexibility to an organization’s leadership, and that diversity of thought can promote organizational success.

Be willing to engage in honest discussions of gender and racial bias

Enabling honest discussions about gender bias can be difficult for many managers. Adding factors of race into that discussion can make a difficult discussion feel impossible. 

Yet because women of color continue to experience specific microaggressions and hidden stereotypes at a rate greater than their white counterparts, diversity training programs must be designed to take an “intersectional approach” that incorporates open discussions of racial as well as gender bias in the workplace.

Make Gender Diversity an Essential Corporate Goal

Unfortunately, upward of 20 percent of employees continue to feel that their organization’s commitment to gender diversity is little more than window dressing, while their commitment to promoting the leadership capabilities of women of color is practically nonexistent. 

For example, 41 percent of companies have specific targets for women leadership in senior and executive roles. However, less than a third have those same goals for gender parity at the level of emerging leaders. And corporate-wide targets designed to promote racial parity often neglect to incorporate gender. 

While many companies claim to be family friendly, women with children continue to pay a very real penalty for the so-called “second shift” of housework and child-rearing.

Thus, leaders at every level of the organization must share an ongoing commitment to actionable policies promoting gender and racial parity of all levels of leadership. They must actively work to identify and eliminate the very real obstacles that currently prevent talented and ambitious women, including women of color, from taking the next step into leadership.  

Without such decisive and critical steps, “the broken rung” will continue to inhibit women’s ability to lead and succeed, while organizations are left without the benefits and successes that stem directly from incorporating a true diversity of voices at the top.