What is the greatest challenge that women face in the workplace today?

Sarah Alter: The Network of Executive Women has identified four top challenges, which become even more challenging as women are promoted to executive roles. They are bias, isolation, lack of support and work-life balance. Women and men start out roughly equal, but work structures, career paths and support systems built for men are failing our women leaders. That has to change.

Katherine Phillips: It’s difficult to name just one since so many challenges are interconnected. However, one universal challenge is navigating a set of organizational norms, rules, structures and cultures that were not designed to fit their needs, and doing so without the same organizational support, sponsorship and mentorship, cultural comfort and benefit of the doubt that their male colleagues enjoy.

Deborah Crown, Ph.D.: Given the diversity among women, along with the multiplicity of today’s workplaces, there isn’t a single challenge that sits squarely at the top of the list, but rather a set of challenges encountered in different ways in different environments. As leaders, learners and contributors, we must be well prepared and equipped to tackle inequality however and wherever it may occur.

Rebekah Lewin: I think that because women are so underrepresented in executive-level roles, women coming up the ranks don’t have as many opportunities to find mentors — other women who can guide them in their careers and advocate for them within the workplace.

Cydni Tetro: Less than 5 percent of working women nationally are in executive roles despite being more than 55 percent of the national workforce. There must be more done to create the opportunity and expectation that women will move into more executive roles as they progress in their career, including expanding networks of current executives, increasing mentorship availability and providing greater visibility.

Dr. Marsha Firestone: Compensation parity is a huge challenge that women face in the workplace. Entrepreneurs can pay themselves more: 75 percent of Women Presidents’ Organization members pay themselves over six figures. The EY 2018 Business Outlook Survey of WPO members found respondents plan to give themselves solid raises. About 40 percent predicted a 1–20 percent hike; more than 5 percent plan an increase of 20 percent.

Why is gender equality in the workplace important?

SA: At the Network of Executive Women we say, “Advancing all women — it’s just good business.” Plenty of research proves that inclusive, gender-diverse companies perform better. Why? Women — and many men — have “21st century” leadership traits, including empathy, vulnerability and collaborative skills. Gender-diverse teams are more innovative, too, although women don’t always get the credit for the ideas they spark!

KP: Gender equality is important because men and women both provide amazing viewpoints and insights that we can’t afford to miss out on as a society. In fact, my research has shown that when men and women come together to work collaboratively, on boards and in teams, performance and outcomes both benefit from the hard work and creativity, motivation and increased number of viewpoints that come with diversity.

DC.: Beyond basic fairness and issues of representation, diversity of thought is good for business. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, $12 trillion could be added to the world’s GDP by 2025 through the advancement of women’s equality in the workplace. Having more women leaders results in increased collaboration, better morale and improved financial performance.

RL: Studies have shown that diversity of thought is beneficial to a business’s bottom line. For example, a 2016 study by The Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY found a correlation between women in senior leadership roles and profitability. Gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do from an egalitarian perspective — it’s the right thing to do for the business.

CT: Research has repeatedly shown that across industries, teams with women and men outperform their male-only counterparts in revenue and profit. Creating inclusive environments that leverage diversity of thought and the talents of all employees not only builds better working environments, it drives the bottom line.

MF: Research on the economic benefits of workplace gender equity is clear: equality can boost profits and enhance reputation. According to a recent American Express report, since 2007 the number of U.S. women-owned businesses has grown five times faster than the national average. Being an entrepreneur is the great equalizer. You control your business culture and your time, and you can pay yourself more.

How can companies better support women in business?

SA: Companies need to better support women through professional and personal pivot points, such as relocation, motherhood, caretaking and illness, where tough decisions make or break a career. Women also need the same stretch assignments, development opportunities, mentoring and sponsorship, and promotions to positions that lead to the top roles that men receive.

KP: We need organizations to provide opportunities for women to have an impact on how the culture, structures, reward systems, organization practices and even the vision of the organization are shaped and communicated. My advice is: Don’t just include women in what you already have established with mostly men in mind; invite women to have an impact on shaping it all.

DC: Companies need to remember that in most cases, women make up more than half of their consumers. With this in mind, each organization should seek out diverse female perspectives and create cultures that empower their entire workforce. Mentorship and sponsorship programs, merit-based hiring and promotion policies at all levels within the organization, and continuous education are keys to building such a culture.

RL: Organizations should understand that balancing career and family is important to many women as they grow in their roles and responsibilities. Companies should proactively identify ways to provide flexibility, support and mentorship opportunities to help women thrive in the workplace without sacrificing their family life. Additionally, companies should continue to focus on eliminating the gender-wage gap. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in 2016 earned only 82 percent of what men made. This is unacceptable, and companies should make closing this gap a priority. That’s why I’m particularly proud that the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester was ranked by Financial Times as a top 15 MBA for women in the US.

CT: Supporting women must start from the top. Executive leadership must lead in building a culture and organization that is inclusive and has an expectation that women will succeed and lead. Practices like paid parental leave, not tracking time off and other measures that focus on work performance rather than seat time are important starting steps for leadership.

MF: Having more women at the top is good business. Companies with more women on boards performed better — in sales, equity and invested capital. Peer support is a key ingredient in helping women get ahead. At WPO we use professionally-facilitated peer learning groups. WPO members identify strategic and operational issues, based on real situations.

How do you see the issue of gender equality in the workplace evolving over the next 10 years?

SA: As a society, we’re ready to tackle harassment, pay disparity and tackle other barriers to equality. But we won’t get there without the vocal, active commitment of C-suite leaders and men at every level. We also need to address the intersection of gender and racial bias holding back women of color. With clear intent and collaboration, we’ll reach gender equality.

KP: I expect the conversation to shift from one of gender equality to one of gender equity. Sometimes people see equality as sameness, but men and women don’t necessarily need the same things to thrive. My hope is that difference will be seen as just that — difference, but not deficient.

DC: The past decade has seen tremendous strides. However, women still make up just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s, are less than 10 percent of top earners in the S&P500, and find it harder to get capital investment as entrepreneurs. The next frontier in equality is increasing the number of women in leadership positions and financially supporting entrepreneurial endeavors in a gender-blind fashion.

RL: We’ve made modest progress over the past decade, but I am hopeful there will be accelerated growth toward gender equality over the next 10 years. To achieve this, we need to be willing to have important conversations about advancing women into leadership roles in companies and on boards of directors. Change won’t come on its own — gender equality will only happen if we make this issue a priority.

CT: A decade from now, we should not be having this conversation anymore. This problem will be solved by finding ways to evaluate based on talent, remove unconscious bias and create the expectation of equality across all variables. Technology companies are already aggressively leading this path through measures that support women, which will accelerate the solution for the entire business community.

MF: While women entrepreneurs have made great strides, they need access to capital and new markets. The media tends to focus on corporate women, as opposed to reporting on entrepreneurs. Women are likely to start with less funding. They tend to bootstrap themselves by incurring credit card debt and borrow from friends and family, often choosing business opportunities that require significantly less start-up costs.