Would you promote a woman if your bonus depended on it?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
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Year after year, studies broadcast the same news: Data shows that there are still few women in leadership positions. And year after year, companies promise to do better about creating opportunities for advancement in the workplace. But what if business leaders had something to lose? Would we then see more women in executive roles?

Deborah Gillis, CEO at Catalyst, a nonprofit that fights for the workplace advancement of women, sure thinks so. She tells CNBC Make It that the best way to hold leaders accountable is by hitting them where it hurts: their wallets.

Gillis has been vocal about women advancing to top positions and the importance of pay. In July, she spoke with The New York Times for a feature discussing why there aren't more women CEOs.

Women are not making big strides

Let's look at the data: According to a 2017 Catalyst analysis, 44.3 percent ot total employees in S&P 500 companies are women. That's almost half of all employees. However, the percentages drop dramatically as you move up the pyramid to increasingly senior positions.

For first/mid-level female officials and managers the number drops to 36.4 percent and for CEOs, the percentage of women falls to a lowly 5.4 percent.

In fact, women's representation from pipeline to senior positions increased by just one percent over a decade, says Gillis: "Progress that's slow is not progress at all."

Promote or pay up

Women in the workplace are held back by stereotypes and assumptions, such as being "to nice or not strong enough," Gillis says. To counter these implicit biases organizations must have a "zero tolerance policy" by making everyone "feel that they have skin in the game," says Gillis.

One of the best ways to get company leaders to pay attention to how they're hiring is through bonuses, says Gillis. She suggests that organizations increase bonuses for leaders who deliberately promote more women and dock the pay for those who do not.

Companies should also reinforce behaviors that challenge gender-based stereotypes and unconscious biases through incentives. "Who gets promoted? Who gets that new opportunity?" says Gillis. "It should be people who manage in a way that's inclusionary."

Gillis advises companies focus on engaging men as champions of diversity in the workplace. "Given that 95 percent of leadership positions at some of the largest companies are occupied by men," says Gillis, "they need to be champions of gender inequality and be equipped with tools to play that part."

Inclusion must be intentional

Gillis points out that every so often, companies come together and sign pledges in which they promise to increase their efforts to promote women to senior-level positions.

"Pledges are important for focusing energy and standing up publicly to raise awareness," says Gillis. But pledges are not enough and pledges will not create "behaviors that result in change," she says.

So what will? Intentional leadership. Gillis says that inclusion is not a choice and must be intentional. Company leaders should be held accountable for creating fair opportunities for women to advance, especially women of color whose representation in executive positions is even lower.

"We know that women face a glass ceiling," says Gillis, "but for women of color it's a concrete ceiling."

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