How to Leverage Boardroom Diversity for Greater Success Women everywhere are "leaning in," yet larger cultural and institutional changes would help narrow the gender gap.

By Sumi Krishnan

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Freedom of speech is awarded all Americans, but having the confidence to voice their opinions is another matter -- especially for women in the workplace.

This year, the term "bossy" came under fire as prominent women, including Beyoncé and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, teamed up behind Sheryl Sandberg's "Ban Bossy" campaign to remove the word from everyday use and promote female leadership.

This movement also points to larger institutional structures that can suppress female voices. Many companies don't promote open communication, and some executives fail to consider women's needs, creating a gender gap in boardrooms.

Studies show that companies with more women in the C-suite outperform the competition and earn higher profits, however. Women everywhere are "leaning in," yet larger cultural and institutional changes would help narrow the gender gap.

It's vital to be aware of a company's biases. Some of my female colleagues who are business executives shared with me the following three factors that hinder a woman's ability to advance in business:

Related: Do Women Leaders Walk a Tightrope to Be Seen as Effective and Likable?

Strong stances. Working in a generally patriarchal business environment in Uganda, Kyusa's executive director, Noeline Kirabo, displayed an assertive demeanor that stood out from the norm of women being followers, not leaders.

"I was viewed as being too ambitious and aggressive simply because I dared to challenge the status quo and venture where many women of my age and in my culture would rather not," Kirabo tells me.

Leaders should refrain from judging strong demeanors in women as overly aggressive. Take a step back and gauge whether social conditioning is playing a role.

Generational differences. Susan LaMotte, principal consultant and founder of exaqueo in Alexandria, Va., finds that baby boomers and traditionalists aren't accustomed to seeing women advance in the workplace and often don't understand their personal needs, which stifles their professional growth.

This is different from how many millennial women approach their careers. Managers should understand these differences and adapt their leadership styles accordingly.

The semantics. Kelly Azevedo, founder and systems expert for She's Got Systems in Woodland, Calif., says there's confusion over what's a bossy woman as opposed to an assertive leader and this can prompt women to shy away from the spotlight.

"I don't believe that bossiness is an inherent trait of leadership," Azevedo tells me. "These "bossy girls' need to be nurtured, mentored and coached on how to use their natural gifts in a way that inspires others."

To succeed in this new economy, companies should foster a business culture that promotes equal opportunity in the following ways:

1. Offer personal development training.

Sarah Schupp, founder of UniversityParent in Boulder, Colo., doesn't believe companies should give women specific opportunities. Rather, organizations should focus on personal development to boost women's confidence and desire to actively seek better opportunities.

"It's important to not make it solely about gender, but truly about developing leaders and providing access to training and personal development opportunities," she says.

2. Encourage women to embrace assertion.

While mentoring young female employees, be aware that many are likely to have been conditioned to think that being "bossy" is a negative. Change that conditioning by promoting and encouraging strong personality traits.

3. Make evaluations gender neutral.

Nicole Smartt, co-owner and vice president at Star Staffing in Petaluma, Calif., tells me that transparency in employee evaluations encourages fair competition and removes gender from the equation.

"Develop or borrow an evaluative rubric that accounts for growth, celebrates innovative ideas and treats each worker as equals," Smartt says. "Praising good performance and growth is far better business "jet fuel' than verbal floggings -- again, regardless of gender."

4. Revamp structures to deter aggression.

A workplace environment centered on ruthless competition stifles diversity and thwarts long-term company success. Companies should promote a culture of open communication and mutual respect for all employees to encourage success.

"Angling for co-worker positions based on better pay, higher clout or more accolades is a recipe for wasted business energy and aggressive behavior that doesn't translate to a higher yield, faster turnaround or a better workplace culture," Smartt says. "Aggression breeds aggression."

Leaders must embrace ambition and strong personality traits, promoting mutual respect, accommodating women's needs and changing the conversation around "bossy" women. Empowering female employees will attract top talent, give companies an edge and change the executive landscape for the better by promoting diversity.

Related: How to Recruit More Female Executives

Sumi Krishnan

CEO of K4 Solutions

Sumi Krishnan is the CEO of Falls Church, Va.-based K4 Solutions, which provides technology and staffing services. She also offers success coaching to aspiring and established female entrepreneurs.

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