Three Ways To Help Create Gender Parity In Leadership Roles

Making parity a priority, getting personally engaged and intentionally celebrating successes will ensure you don't lose your most talented female leaders.

Written for Chief Executive by Selmina Babai Abji

We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. But the reality is that women are thwarted much earlier in their attempt to climb the ladder to the top—there’s a broken rung far down the ladder that’s keeping them from taking that first step up to manager. Fixing this broken rung is the key to achieving parity. This broken-rung inequality surfaces early in women’s careers and compounds at each subsequent level.

There’s good news though. Organizations have begun to recognize that gender parity in leadership roles is a competitive advantage and delivers better business outcomes. And yet despite some hard-fought gains, women’s representation is not keeping pace. At the highest levels, less than 22 percent of leaders are women, and for women of color, like me, the number is less than 6 percent.

There are three critical ways for top leadership in any organization to become part of the change that creates gender parity in leadership roles:

1. Make gender parity in leadership roles a strategic priority at every level in your organization starting at the CEO and board levels.

• Gather data on your current state of representation at every rung of the ladder- starting from recruitment- all the way to the most senior levels.

• Create a vision of your desired state by setting targets that are challenging and achievable for the future you want your organization to have.

• Create a cadence to measure and report progress of the entire pipeline every quarter from your current state to your desired state– with the same rigor as you measure other business outcomes such as your revenues and profits. If the pipeline is not making the progress for you to achieve your desired outcome, you must understand the root causes and allocate resources to fix them.

• Tie meaningful financial rewards for leaders to make meaningful progress and to find innovative ways to increase representation. Remuneration drives behavior- (both conscious and unconscious) and plays a critical role in where they allocate their limited time and attention- especially in our fast-paced and constantly disruptive workplaces where there are multiple and sometimes competing priorities.

• Have a pipeline of high potential women ready to be considered for leadership roles when an opportunity opens up for a promotion. Prepare them not just to be promoted but also to succeed once they get promoted. When you have to consistently bring outside hires because you don’t have a qualified pipeline, it demoralizes your existing workforce and sends a signal that there will be no promotional opportunities for them.

2. Get personally engaged.

• Participate in women’s events to demonstrate that they are a priority for you and deserve your precious time. I deliver many keynotes at women’s conferences and only once have I had a large tech CEO on a panel with 2 women of color talking about the importance of and his commitment to having women in leadership roles. Both women mentioned that they were glad their bosses did not accept their first “No” as their final answer.

It is a well-known fact that women will not apply for or accept a role until they feel 100% qualified for a role. He encouraged women to opt into the leadership pipeline and when approached by their bosses for promotion to say “yes.” In today’s business climate, many leaders will accept their first answer as their final answer because they believe that is what the women truly want. Oftentimes women underestimate their worth and their potential especially when they don’t see senior leaders who look like them, so they need you to see their potential and encourage them to take a chance on themselves and seek higher level roles. However, if the woman is truly not ready or does not want a leadership role at a point in time, then respect her decision but don’t write her off. She might be ready when there is the next opportunity. Having this conversation requires you to build a trusted professional relationship with your women employees.

• Become a visible sponsor by advocating for women in rooms where they are not present to set an example and encourage other leaders to do the same. Show your trust and confidence in them by putting your credibility on the line and recommending them for leadership roles or growth assignments that will enable them to learn meaningful and relevant competencies, which will prepare them for future leadership roles.

• Invite and encourage women to contribute value in high visible assignments as well as in every meeting you are present.

• Publicly call out any potential conscious or unconscious gender biases or mindsets that create invisible barriers for women.

• Ensure pay equity in your organization and make that information public to stand up a role mode.

3. Intentionally celebrate success. 

• Publicly recognize the leaders at your company who are making meaningful progress in advancing gender parity in leadership roles. Recognize both the individual who is promoting women as well as the women themselves.

I have been to countless conferences where most people on the stage giving out awards as well as the one receiving the awards are men. This reinforces the belief many women have that they don’t belong on those stages. Intentionally seek women leaders who are performing well and stand them up as role models. This will:

  • Encourage other women to see themselves being celebrated on stage
  • Motivate more women to opt into the leadership pipeline
  • Chip away at the negative stereotypes and biases (conscious and unconscious) that currently exist in many workplaces

When you help achieve gender parity in leadership roles, women will finally be present in every room where decisions are being made—diminishing negative stereotypes and biases in the workplace once and for all. Your promotion of your female employees into leadership roles is not just for them, but also for all the other women who will come after you. You are helping blaze a trail for them and changing the world of business forever.

By Shelmina Babai Abji

Formerly with IBM, Shelmina Babai Abji is a TEDx speaker, angel investor and board member, she is devoted to creating gender equality in leadership by helping career women emerge as leaders. She is the author of the new book, Show Your Worth: 8 Intentional Strategies for Women to Emerge as Leaders at Work. For more information, please visit,