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The One Thing Every Company Gets Wrong About Promoting Women

February 11, 2016, 1:00 AM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Kim Metcalf-Kupres, VP and and CMO at Johnson Controls.

Much research over the past several years has yielded consistent results and documented a compelling case for businesses to pursue getting more females into senior leadership roles. The latest Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum notes that companies with a top quartile representation of women in executive positions in general perform better than companies with no women at the top, by some estimates with a 47% average return on equity. However, the same report concludes that female income levels today are on par with those of male counterparts over 20 years ago, and at the current pace the gap in gender parity will persist for another 80 years. So, why aren’t we making better progress?

Every organization is different, but oftentimes the biggest barriers to women successfully achieving senior leadership roles are cultural and structural. Despite concerted efforts by companies, women still face significant challenges related to unconscious bias and cultural norms in most industries that create behavioral barriers and unique stressors. Workplace stressors, like speaking up and not being heard, or constantly having to prove that they can do the job as well as their male counterparts, seriously impact corporate culture by discouraging women from playing the game and making it difficult for them to fully engage at senior levels. As a result, many opt out or become disengaged.

See also: The Myth Women in Tech Need to Stop Believing

The problem is compounded when gender diversity is not widely seen as a priority within the organization. According to a recent study by and McKinsey & Company, 74% of companies report that their CEOs are highly committed to gender diversity, but less than half of employees actually believe gender diversity is a top priority for their CEO, and only a third see it as a top priority for their direct manager. Support and commitment from senior leaders is crucial, but to be impactful that message needs to come through at every level.

Those interested in driving real change must also be cognizant of what the path to senior leadership looks like and how disparity in roles can create structural barriers to female advancement. For example, data indicates that at manager levels the majority of women hold line roles contributing to profit and loss responsibility within core business operations. However, more than half of the women who achieve a VP-level hold staff roles in general administrative functions such as IT, legal, finance, or human resources. The distinction is important, because a higher percentage of C-suite executives serve in significant line roles as they advance in their careers, and CEOs are definitely promoted more often from line roles than staff roles. Identifying and addressing functional areas where women are especially underrepresented is important, but placing too much emphasis on roles and titles can also be limiting. Every job is what the individual and the company agree to make it, and there are many opportunities to help people move cross-functionally or through non-traditional assignments to acquire the experience needed to advance to senior leadership.

For example, my own career at Johnson Controls over the past 20-plus years has involved numerous assignments with broad responsibilities across many dimensions of the company. Each of these moves required both the company and me to take some risks, and be willing to experiment with stretch assignments. Today, my role is broadly focused on profitable growth and includes responsibility for strategy, marketing, sales innovation, business transformation, and communications. This approach wouldn’t work for every company, but while we’re shaping and building new capabilities it’s working for us. The key is to understand the business objectives and purposely design varied career paths and new opportunities that leverage the core skills and unique strengths of aspiring female leaders, so they’re growing while delivering value to the company.

Awareness of gender-bias and the cultural and structural barriers in the workplace is an important first step in achieving gender parity, but there is a long way to go. Shifting global demographics, changing expectations of the new generation of workers, and digitalization trends are all demanding that we raise our sense of urgency and start to make real progress. The world needs more qualified and empowered female leaders — now.