A secret weapon businesses underutilize

Are women getting promoted? Are businesses really tapping into their strengths to drive results and grow?

No, according to When Women Thrive, the research effort by global consulting leader Mercer.

Businesswoman in office
Ezra Bailey | Getty Images

In fact, the recently released report forecasts what our future female workforce will look like based on the actual hiring, promotion and retention rates of more than 3.2 million employees in almost 600 organizations globally.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Women are underrepresented in the workforce globally. The U.S., like Europe, is struggling to achieve gender parity by 2025, with Latin America being the only bright spot.
  • Female representation will reach only 40 percent globally in the professional and managerial ranks by 2025.
  • While women are broadly represented at the bottom of the organization in support and administrative roles, their numbers drop precipitously as career level rises.

The big business risk: A weak female talent pipeline

Perhaps the biggest risk uncovered by the research is the failure to build strong female talent pipelines.

While women are making some progress at the top, making up about 20 percent of those in executive roles, this progress is due largely to the ad hoc hiring of senior women rather than attention to women at all levels of the hierarchy. This is resulting in a revolving door — while women are 1.5 times more likely than men to be hired in at the top, they are also leaving organizations from the highest rank at 1.3 times the rate of men, undermining those very gains.

Women are an untapped market. Smart companies like Johnson & Johnson, eBay, and UBS are truly leveraging them — not just for their unique strengths but also to drive their business in areas like innovation and R&D.

Helping women thrive as a strategy for growth

So what should companies be doing to drive their growth through women and, ultimately, create a thriving workforce? Here are five moves:

  • Re-think job roles: Women have unique strengths in areas crucial to solving today's complex problems. The When Women Thrive report found that women are perceived to have unique skills in flexibility and adaptability (39 percent vs. 20 percent who say men have those strengths); inclusive team management (43 percent vs. 20 percent); and emotional intelligence (24 percent vs. 5 percent). One thing business leaders can do is re-examine job roles to leverage these strengths, and be sure their experience as the customer in so many areas is not overlooked.
  • Engage middle managers: Imagine a woman who's facing a life change, such as becoming a mother. Chances are her supervisor may not be equipped to have critical conversations with her about how she can best manage her career and stay engaged with work. In fact, we find that only 38 percent of middle managers are engaged in diversity efforts despite the crucial role they play in women's progression. One thing companies can do: offer training to managers on how to have conversations before, during and after a leave.
  • Integrate the data: As Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said, "If we review the sales numbers, let's also review the people numbers." There are many key places to bring a gender lens to data, such as in the area of pay equity, performance reviews and employee financial behavior. For instance, only 29 percent of organizations globally review performance ratings by gender and yet this is an opportunity to identify biases. As Mercer points out with its 6P methodology, leveraging proof to improve business processes is key.
  • Create programs for women's success: We know that women are more risk-averse investors and have different health and financial needs than men for many reasons — longer lifespans, their role as caregiver to aging parents and even different diseases. This might be surprising, but the research shows that when women are supported with financial and health wellness programs designed specifically for them, it correlates to greater representation in the workforce. Yet, only 14 percent of organizations surveyed in the U.S. and Canada offer women-focused retirement and savings programs or monitor investments with a gender eye. If leaders want women to thrive and be productive in the workplace, they should reconsider programs that will truly serve their — and their family's — needs.
  • Benchmark yourself: How can you know how you compare to peers if you don't benchmark yourself? A key first step is to take a diagnostic and understand what your female workforce trajectory looks like and identify top areas needing attention. Companies may find that they they're actually moving too slowly — that they may need to hire and promote women faster than they are now just to maintain their current representation.

The bottom line: If you want a thriving workforce, think about how to help women thrive. A successful gender diversity strategy will both further your growth goals while also paying important dividends to families, communities and the economy.

Jennifer Openshaw is a partner of the consulting firm Mercer and its When Women Thrive research platform. She founded and later sold Women's Financial Network in Silicon Valley, served as host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and has become a frequent guest on CNBC, CNN, Oprah and many other programs. She is the author of "The Socially Savvy Advisor" and "The Millionaire Zone" about the networking strategies of the wealthy.

NOTE: This commentary piece was originally published on Feb. 18, 2015, but has been republished with the permission of the author.