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To Help More Women Reach the Top, We Must First Help Those at the Bottom

These days, there's a lot of focus on adding women to corporate boards. That's good - but it doesn't solve a much deeper problem.

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Back in January, announced that the bank would no longer take a company public unless its board had at least one “diverse” member. Its CEO, , also said that IPOs of companies with “at least one female director” outperformed companies with all-male boards. And in 2018, the state of passed a law requiring that publicly traded firms in the state have at least one woman on their board of directors.

Courtesy of Fairygodboss

The changes were exciting news for advocates for gender equality. They sound like progress! But take a step back.

These initiatives are the equivalent of treating a symptom, rather than getting at the fundamental illness of the talent pipeline. Mandating diverse boards is an incredibly powerful move to rattle the status quo — but the results may not trickle down to anyone else within the corporation. 

Related: To See More Women in Leadership Roles, Here's What Needs to Happen

In its 2019 Women in the Workplace study, the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that women are underrepresented at every level in the workplace beyond the entry level and face their biggest challenges in their first ascent to the manager position. McKinsey describes it as the “broken rung” for women climbing the corporate ladder. This is the part of any organization that needs more attention. This is where more women must be brought into the talent pipeline and given the tools to climb over that broken rung. 

Harvard Review published a 2016 study that found that when there was only one woman in a pool of candidates, the statistical chance that she would get the job was practically zero. Adding in just one additional woman to the same candidate pool, however, greatly increased the chances of one of them being hired. No matter the position companies are looking to fill, it’s vital they have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from — and maintain this practice all the way down to their early management positions. 

Implementing this cultural shift is not easy. From the thousands of anonymous company reviews left on Fairygodboss, the career community for women I lead, we know that women who believe there is more gender equality at experience higher . Gender diversity in the workplace is influenced by a variety of factors, but three of the most important are supportive managers, paid policies, and flexible work environments. 

Regardless of their current parental status, paid parental leave is one of the benefits most women say makes them more likely to view a company more positively, apply for a job, and stay at their current employer. 

Related: 3 Questions To Ask If You Want Female Entrepreneurs to Accelerate

The term flexible work environment can mean different things to different people. For some, it means being able to work from home a few days every week. For others, it means being able to adjust their work hours. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but one thing is clear: All employees value flexibility, but for women, it can mean the difference between staying and leaving an employer.  

Creating a workplace where more women have the ability to advance will help create more diverse boards, period. California’s law and Goldman Sachs’ mandate show thoughtful leadership in the movement for gender equality, but these actions only treat one symptom of a larger problem. It’s up to every company to make changes to prevent the illness in the first place.

Check out more stories from our October/November issue's list of 100 Powerful Women.

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