Recently in the Friends of Harvard Business School Executive Education LinkedIn chat, there was so much chatter after I asked the question, “Does your organization forget half its talent?” in response to the New York Times’ Dealbook Conference only selecting one woman to speak out of a total of 18 featured speakers. The comments were quite telling. Lots of educated men and women still don’t get it and misunderstood thinking continues to perpetuate the problem.

Fortune 500 companies consistently indicate that when there are more women at the top, the financial returns are stronger; and McKinsey’s study on Women Matter indicates that when there are 3 or more women at the top for extended periods of 4-5 years, the financial gains are exponential! The positive results are not just financial either. Leadership studies such as Zenger Folkman’s survey of over 7000 employees stated that women scored higher than men in 12 of 14 leadership factors when evaluated by their employees on a 360 review.

But the lack of inclusion persists, even by those we expect to be enlightened! Deep seated beliefs, often unconscious, by both men and women, play out everyday, creating and reinforcing the social conditioning barriers for women.  Changing only the mindsets of the Executive Committee and other senior leaders misses the most important influencers of sustained change—employees’ direct supervisors.

Through hierarchical, structural and personal influencing methods, organizations will achieve their gender balance goals.  Advancing more women into these positions would in time help companies rebalance their executive committees, which in turn increases the likelihood of sustaining gender diversity at every level to the very top.  Not only would the business environment for women be altered dramatically, but the entire discussion at the top of corporate America would change completely.

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