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Beyond Inspiring Inclusion: Strategies to Close the Gender Gap in Executive and Board Leadership 

Beyond Inspiring Inclusion: Strategies to Close the Gender Gap in Executive and Board Leadership 

April 2024


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This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Inspire Inclusion”—but when we look at the numbers, women are still very much excluded from leadership. 

On March 7 2024, the eve of International Women’s Day (IWD), Stanton Chase hosted a webinar with Sharon Peake, CEO and Founder of Shape Talent, titled “The Three Barriers to Women’s Career Progression and How to Address Them.” In light of this discussion, I began to think about what business leaders, executives, and board members can do to eliminate these barriers.  

Despite this year’s IWD theme, “Inspire Inclusion,” I worry that we aren’t taking women’s persistent exclusion seriously enough. Women need leaders who fearlessly confront and demolish obstacles obstructing their advancement, not inspirational rhetoric about inclusion. Instead of posting contrived messages about women in leadership on LinkedIn, these leaders must speak out with righteous indignation about the injustice of gender inequality. 

Why Women Remain Excluded from Leadership Positions

According to S&P, women will make up half of corporate leadership within the next six years, but that’s an optimistic stance to take. At the moment, women only represent 28% of C-suite positions, up from 17% in 2015. This continued exclusion is astounding when you consider that research shows that companies with more women in senior positions are more profitable, socially responsible, and provide safer workplaces. While change is on the horizon, the pace at which it is being affected needs to increase. 

One major obstacle is the higher standards women face compared to men. About 40% of people believe higher standards for women and lack of readiness by companies to hire women for top positions impede their advancement. Explicit barriers, like the belief that women are less committed to their careers than men, also contribute to the gender imbalance in executive management positions. 

Women also receive fewer opportunities at work compared to men, and this results in their underrepresentation at higher levels of management. This lack of opportunity compounds over time and makes it harder for women to reach the C-suite. 

But progress is being made—albeit too slowly. In the S&P 500, 86% of companies now have three or more female directors. This is up from 47% in 2018. And a McKinsey report revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their boards were 25% more likely to outperform on profitability. 

Five Actionable Strategies for Business Leaders to Dismantle Barriers to Women’s Career Advancement

1. Better Communication About Career Advancement

The first step you should take to help more women progress in their careers at your company is by playing open cards with them—that is, you should encourage women to communicate their career goals freely by creating a culture of open dialogue between employees and management. Management should, in turn, be open and transparent with women regarding what they need to do to make their career goals a reality. This can be achieved through regular one-on-one meetings where employees can discuss their career aspirations without fear of judgment or retribution. You should also train your supervisors and leaders to actively ask employees about their career ambitions and work together on a plan to achieve them. Don’t wait for women to volunteer for leadership positions—ask them if they want to lead and then help them get there. 

2. Give Women Access to High-Profile Assignments

Women often face the barrier of not being given the same high-visibility project opportunities as men. To provide women the same opportunities to reach the C-suite as men, you need to change this. You can start effecting real, tangible change by ensuring that assignment distribution is equitable and by tracking who is assigned important high-stakes projects. It is also a good idea—and highly advisable—to create a system that allows women to express their interest in these assignments; many digital project management tools can facilitate something like this. 

3. Provide Opportunities for Allyship, Mentorship, and Sponsorship 

Often, the “broken rung” that stops women from getting into the C-suite is the lack of a helping hand to boost them past that hurdle. If my metaphor is unclear, let me be direct: women need allies who are willing to guide and teach them, to advocate for them, and to elevate their profiles when discussing opportunities and promotions. To make this a reality, you should encourage everyone in your organization to examine their biases and become active allies. This includes asking senior leaders to take on mentorship and sponsorship roles for women; these leaders, regardless of their gender, can play an important role in guiding the women they mentor or sponsor by helping them navigate obstacles and improve their skills. 

4. Involve Your HR Department 

You should work alongside your human resources department to eliminate barriers to career development for women. You can achieve this together by implementing things like equity audits, transparent promotion tracks, and succession planning that consider the challenges faced by women. In whichever way you decide to involve your HR department, your goal should be to ensure that progress in gender diversity is not merely performative but integrated into the company’s growth strategies. 

5. Fight Against Second-Generation Gender Bias

You should educate both your male and your female employees about subtle forms of gender bias known as second-generation gender bias. These are biases that are not always obvious or apparent because they originate from long-standing organizational practices and cultural norms rather than overt discrimination or malice. For example, a common second-generation gender bias might be expecting employees to be available to work outside of their normal office hours regularly. While this expectation applies to everyone, and thus isn’t overtly sexist, it does not consider that women often take on all of (or the most) domestic or caregiving duties. Asking women to work outside of their contracted hours thus puts them at a disadvantage in a way that it doesn’t equally disadvantage men. To combat second-generation bias, you should consider offering your employees and leaders training that helps identify and understand how these biases operate. You should also implement policies aimed at mitigating their impact. 

Achieve Greater Gender Parity in Your Executive and Board Leadership

As I said earlier, this article was inspired by a webinar Stanton Chase hosted called “The Three Barriers to Women’s Career Progression and How to Address Them.” If you would like to watch that webinar yourself to get access to in-depth research about why gender inequality persists in companies, you can do so by clicking here

If you’ve come to realize that your own company could also benefit from a more diverse C-suite or board, we can help. At Stanton Chase, we’ve been helping companies make diverse (but merit-based) executive and board hires for more than 30 years. We know how to do more than just inspire inclusion—we can help you to drive real change. Click here to reach out to one of our consultants

About the Author 

Valeria Cox is a Managing Partner at Stanton Chase Santiago and serves as the Regional Leader for the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging practice group in the LATAM region. She is also a marketing executive with over 20 years of experience in various industries, consistently delivering value in strategic planning, marketing research, consumer behavior, CX, and loyalty planning.  

Valeria possesses significant experience in gender diversity on boards and at the top management level. Over the past 12 years of her career, she has specialized in diversity and inclusion, and she is a member of several local, regional, and global organizations related to this important topic. 

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