When I began working as an advocate for women’s advancement in 1994, many people were surprised to learn that women in the senior ranks numbered in the single digits. So how is it that 20 years later, women’s participation has not yet topped 18 percent of corporate boards or executive suites?

It’s bewildering that progress remains so slow, given that for years we’ve known that having more women on the board and in executive suites boosts the bottom line. In 2007, we learned that companies with the highest percentage of women directors beat those with the least by 53 percent in return on equity. Then a 2009 study found that the 25 best firms for women executives measured profits 34 percent higher than others in their industries.

A worthwhile investment

Now a new study by McKinsey demonstrates a financial payoff for companies when women reach 22 percent of senior leadership. It found that companies with the most women were 15 percent more likely to report financial returns above their industry median, thanks to better decision making and happier employees.

"Since adding women to the senior team leads to higher profits, isn’t it time for companies to listen to their women?"

If having more women at the top improves both the bottom line and morale, why haven’t companies jumped into action to groom and promote women?

A new benchmark

Well, it’s not a quick fix. That’s why the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) created an annual competition to track the Top 50 Companies for Executive Women and generate best practices for benchmarking. Among the 2015 winners, women fill 27 percent of board seats and run 22 percent of operations—hitting that sweet spot for increased profits.

Aware that past research may have fallen on deaf ears, we recently convened a NAFE Roundtable of 50 male and female senior operations executives from 25 Fortune 500 companies to build male allies for women’s advancement. Each company’s pair of leaders—in this rare timeout from business as usual—listened to the stories of others from these companies. Men commented that they were startled by the women’s candid discussion about being passed over for opportunities because they’re mothers (“I’m ready for a promotion before my children go to college!” said one), or by how many women had ideas ignored at meetings, then picked up by male colleagues. Several women shared how women often don’t raise their hands for open positions, which the men didn’t realize.

It’s been my experience that men take action when they recognize a problem. One C-suite executive reported being “shocked” by the similar anecdotes heard from his session partner and women from other organizations. He reported he now “will listen to women” back at his company; while another executive proclaimed he will “fix it” before his daughter enters the workplace.

NAFE plans more cross-company candid sessions to create male allies and motivate action for women’s success. Since adding women to the senior team leads to higher profits, isn’t it time for companies to listen to their women?