By Raheela Gill Anwar

This has been a standout year for women gaining visibility in politics and speaking out on social and gender issues. Additionally, women continue to make progress in corporate America, but not at the top; numbers remain consistently low for women in leadership positions, including those in senior finance roles.

One thing is certain: The dearth is not due to a lack of women entering finance. A Spencer Stuart study showed that women represent more than half of accounting graduates and 61.3% of accountants and auditors, yet only 12.5% of CFOs in the Fortune 500. Clearly, some barriers and gaps still exist that hold women back from gaining traction at the top.

How Companies Are Failing High-Potential Women

In most industries, men and women enter the workforce at equal rates. Of course, this changes when women start leaving the workforce to start or care for their families. At this juncture, many organizations fail their high-potential women in numerous ways:

  • Career pathing. According to a study from Working Mother Research Institute, women are less likely than men to understand their career paths within an organization. For example, 48% of men polled said they had access to or were given comprehensive information about their possible career paths to higher positions, compared to 15% of women.
  • Strategy around leaving and re-entering the workforce. The challenge here is how to navigate short- or even long-term absences while accommodating roles that are traditionally full-time positions, in order to not lose valuable talent in the long run.
  • Lack of emerging leader development. Women who don’t follow a straight career progression line can sometimes be passed over for development opportunities. The Working Mother study found that 28% of women compared to 53% of men participated in a leadership development program in the past 24 months.
  • Lack of succession planning/role models. McKinsey links higher levels of ethnic and gender diversity with higher corporate profitability, yet women are less likely to be identified or groomed for senior roles, resulting in a lack of role models for other women.

 What Companies Can Do

  • Greater transparency regarding career paths, development and succession planning. Women need clearer development opportunities that foster career paths to the C-suite.
  • Companies and senior leadership should stop making assumptions about women’s career ambitions as they relate to their personal lives. Often, leaders-in-the-making are willing to make work/life trade-offs to continue to advance their careers.
  • Creativity around role structuring and flexible work arrangements. Job-sharing and work-from-home arrangements continue to be competitive advantages for companies seeking to retain top talent.
  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are critical when nurturing diversity. Encourage separate groups depending on the need and engage with them separately. For example, ERGs can be formed for younger people, women at all levels across the organization, and executive women leaders.
  • Change the narrative. Most organizations don’t want to admit a lack of women in leadership roles. In the current high-employment economy, the war for talent demands that companies compete on their employer brand for highly desirable talent.

What Women Executives Can Do

  • Find a champion/sponsor and advocate for yourself. To reach the highest levels, you need an advocate with whom you communicate about your opportunities and challenges – someone who consistently champions your work with top leadership. This individual will also open doors for you and encourage you for stretch assignments.
  • Work collaboratively across the organization, and gain exposure across the enterprise. This will give you top visibility when key openings or growth opportunities arise.
  • Maintain a healthy network – both internal and external. Networking is the lifeblood of a successful leadership journey. Developing and nurturing strategic networks is critical to advancement. In addition, mentors can be invaluable in providing advice and support.

Developing anyone for a leadership role takes work, and both women and companies often face unique challenges as they progress on that path. Organizations competing for talent must invest in ways for women to achieve long-term success, and women, too, can help themselves and their careers along the way.

This content originally appeared in FEI Daily.