Do we have the talent pool to meet our society’s biggest challenges head on? Not if companies continue to ignore the immense potential of a significant portion of the labor workforce: women — and women of color, in particular.

As an organization that has championed civil rights for women and girls in the workplace and schools for 45 years, we at Equal Rights Advocates have heard the oddest things said about women's capacity to lead. Folks who want to disqualify women from sitting in the C-Suite point to women’s pregnancy or family status, presumed lack of negotiation skills or “emotions” as reasons they aren’t getting to the highest leadership levels.

None of that is true. State laws are growing stronger to make family-friendly workplace policies more accessible. Recent studies have shown that not only do women negotiate, we are technically good at it. Recent studies have also shown that more companies are beginning to see the value of the skills — like being nurturing, communicative and collaborative — most associated with women’s leadership. Additionally, women are graduating from college and graduate programs at higher rates than ever before. Women continue to be a highly educated and skilled segment of the workforce.

If we want to continue to make great advances, we cannot ignore the power and leadership capability in women.

However, gender stereotypes and internal company policies combine to artificially depress a woman's opportunities for advancement; to stifle the adoption of mom-friendly policies (like breastfeeding accommodation, paid family leave and flexible work hours); and to resist efforts to make workplaces harassment-free, gradually pushing out female talent.

This thinning of the herd is especially visible when you consider the rarity of women at the highest levels of business. A 2017 Catalyst study showed that women in S&P 500 Companies were 44.7 percent of the total employees. Yet they were only 26.5 percent of executive-level senior managers. At the CEO level? An anemic 5.2 percent. Just this past August, Indra Nooyi announced her October 2018 departure as CEO of PepsiCo, which will reduce the tally of female CEOs to 24 (barely 5 percent of the overall S&P 500).

In this #MeToo era, it's important to know that greater gender diversity in a company is linked to a decrease in workplace aggression, harassment and discrimination. Recruiting and promoting women is also good for the bottom line: When McKinsey & Company surveyed 1,000 companies across 12 countries, it found a link between strong financial performance and gender diversity. It also found that organizations in the top 25 percent for ethnic/cultural diversity were more likely to achieve above-average profitability for their industries. More gender-diverse businesses also enjoy stronger, and better, reputations: Organizations on the Fortune 500's list of World's Most Admired Companies have twice as many women in senior management positions than companies with lower rankings. 

It’s clear that only leveraging a small portion of the talent pool means the business world is missing out. If we want to continue to make great advances, we cannot ignore the power and leadership capability in women.