Despite excelling in leadership qualities, women often face an uphill climb to the top roles. Data from the human resources association SHRM and Harvard Business Review captures this ongoing challenge.

Women account for nearly 50% of the workforce but occupy only 31% of top leadership positions. They serve as CEOs of just 5% of Fortune 500 companies and 2% of S&P 500 organizations.

But these inequalities don’t have to persist. You can identify and support female leaders in your organization through workplace culture, mentorship programs, metrics and accountability, and employee benefits.

Ongoing challenges

The gender disparity in leadership is due to multiple factors, including cultural issues like gender norms, expectations and biases. Women are also more likely to have suffered job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic and taken career breaks due to caregiving responsibilities.

These ongoing challenges take a toll on women in the workforce. Almost 45% of women said they were burned out, according to a report by McKinsey & Co. and Just 31% of men said the same. The gender difference in burnout has doubled in recent years, SHRM reports.

Supporting female leaders

Reversing workplace inequality requires men and women to jointly seek change. Helping women ascend to leadership positions benefits everyone. Gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also better for business.

Research from Harvard Business Review showed women outperformed men in most leadership skills, including:

  • Initiative
  • Innovation
  • Resilience
  • Problem-solving and analysis
  • Work ethic and self-development
  • Motivation and development of others
  • Integrity and honesty
  • Adaptation to change
  • Work relationships

Examining the following steps can help your organization support female employees and create a more straightforward path toward leadership.

A workplace culture of equality

The first step is creating an inclusive workplace that respects and values women. Examine your hiring and promotion practices to ensure equal opportunities. Highlight the importance of gender diversity and inclusion in your recruitment and retention efforts. Examine communications for gender-neutral language. Ensure women aren’t stuck with office housework such as making coffee, scheduling meetings and taking notes. Implement a transparent compensation system to guard against long-standing gender pay disparities.

A women-led employee resource group can create a safe environment for women in the workplace. They can share advice, form support networks, and talk openly about opportunities and challenges. Employee resource groups also create a dialogue with company leaders to discuss needs and solutions.

Leadership through mentorship

Getting your male and female executives to mentor and coach female employees is another effective strategy for increasing the number of women in top roles. Pairing lower-level employees with upper management and executive leaders heightens visibility and advocacy. It can also lead to stretch assignments that allow women to expand their skill sets and experience.

Women need constructive feedback, but SHRM notes they often don’t receive as much input as men. Mentors acknowledge where employees thrive and highlight areas for improvement. These connections also foster a sense of belonging and a clearer path for upward mobility.

Metrics and accountability

It’s crucial to set metrics addressing gender imbalances in leadership roles. Start by questioning why gender disparities exist, and then list potential solutions. Measurements may include mentorship program participation, hiring and promotion quotas, professional development opportunities, and career paths to executive positions.

Leadership training can equip women with the technical skills they need to advance. But it can also address vital soft skills such as interpersonal communication and negotiation skills.

With metrics in place, hold leaders accountable for these goals. State them publicly, and tie them to performance pay and bonuses.

Employee benefits support

Benefits supporting the unique challenges facing women are also important. Add or enhance your flexible work options and caregiver benefits, which often have the most significant impact on women. Provide child care support such as subsidies and emergency backup providers. Robust offerings for parental leave, fertility, pregnancy loss and menopause can further support women throughout their careers.

Hold training workshops on unconscious bias for recruiters, managers and executives. Unconscious bias is when people make decisions based on stereotypes, rather than facts.

For example, a manager might assume that a female employee who has recently taken parental leave is less committed to her job. This can cause her to be overlooked for a promotion, even if she’s equally or more qualified than her peers. Unconscious biases regarding gender roles and the need for leave can undermine performance reviews and hold women back from leadership.

Together, these offerings communicate that your organization values equality and respects the unique needs of your workforce.

The path ahead

Helping women ascend to leadership requires intention, planning and follow-up. For more ideas and strategies, talk to your benefits adviser. They can help you explore employee training and benefits to support your female employees.