Why women in business still need men to get ahead

Women in leadership roles are keenly aware of our how our numbers have stagnated in the past decade. When it comes to business, finance and politics, women remain underrepresented in senior roles — and even mid-level ones.

And yet, we keep striving. The past year or so alone has seen a cottage industry of professional women's groups blossom into a city-sized community worthy of note, each focusing on a specific niche (Lean In, Ellevate, Levo League). And yet, the number of women in big jobs remains essentially unchanged.

Source: Blade

That's because the answer doesn't lie in our hands alone. At the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE), a division of Working Mother Media, we believe the responsibility for advancing women must be shared by men and women together.

Many experts agree. John Keyser, co-author of the book, Make Way for Women, argues, for example, that men need to treat hiring, developing and promoting women as an urgent issue. "C'mon guys, it's a no-brainer," he says. "Right now women are 60 percent of college graduates and 70 percent of valedictorians. Business is so competitive, we need the strongest teams leading together."

Still need convincing? Consider these points:

• Companies with more female leaders outperform their peers, beat stock market averages and have fewer major ethical violations, according to research firm Catalyst.

• Companies with female directors generate better financial returns—including return on investment, share-price performance and price-to-book value ratio—than male-led companies, according to the Harvard Business Review.

• McKinsey & Co. calculates that if women were allowed to contribute their full potential to the global economy, it could boost GDP by $28 trillion.

What will it take to get men on board as allies to women? At NAFE, we believe the answer is threefold: Companies must build men's awareness of the unconscious biases that work against us, have men collaborate on women's career paths, and encourage men to approach the advancement process with new candor.

Building awareness

Human nature leads us all to naturally want to work with others who are "like me" or whom we already know. Because there are relatively few women at the top, that means we remain at a disadvantage when it comes to male managers choosing people to hire, promote and offer stretch assignments to. Companies must make managers aware of this tendency and encourage—or even require—them to consider a diverse slate of candidates for new positions or responsibilities.

Building career paths

And speaking of stretch assignments, too often women won't get even asked to consider them. The thinking goes, Oh, she won't want a travel role, she's just had a baby or This client is tough, and she won't want to make waves. Keyser says, "Men make these kinds of assumptions all the time on the executive floor without even consulting the women involved."

To be a successful ally, men must learn what skills women on their teams have, what they've achieved in other roles and where they'd like to go, advises Adrienne Hand, Keyser's co-author on Make Way for Women.

Building Courage

That's why it's especially critical "to have the same type of direct and frank discussions with a woman as a male leader would have with another male," notes Tim Tracy, the Iselin, NJ-based assurance managing partner, Northeast, for Ernst & Young LLP, a 2016 NAFE Top Company.

Indeed, that last point may be the most crucial to consider. Discussions between male managers and female reports might start with career aspirations and stretch assignments, but they shouldn't stop there. Says Tracy, "I would strongly encourage women not to be apologetic for working a different schedule and rather be proud of the fact they are being a great role model."

Commentary by Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media and the Working Mother Research Institute. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @working_mother.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.