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How to close the female leadership gap in business

The female leadership gap in the corporate world isn’t going away, but there are ways to address it, from sponsorships to mentoring and beyond. But it’s going to take work from all sides.

First, the bad news. According to the Center for American Progress, while women hold 52% of all professional level jobs, they only hold 25% percent of executive and senior manager roles and just 20% of board seats. If that’s not staggering enough, women make up only 6% of CEOs.

But some people are choosing to look at this as an opportunity. “We know that there aren't enough women leaders in corporate America today, and what’s exciting about this is that there's lots of opportunity to increase that,” says Lauren Herring, CEO of career and leadership development firm Impact Group.

“Companies that have more women on their boards and more women in senior leadership actually perform better,” she says. “So this is a business issue, not a women's issue.”

Herring suggests organizations develop a strategy to increase the numbers of female leaders in their ranks.

“Part of that is how do you make sure that you're supporting getting women into the pipeline in the first place?” she says. “It's important to be focused on how to specifically sponsor women and identify how we can bring them up in the organization.”

But it’s not just companies that can help close the leadership gap. Women looking to lead can also take the initiative — even if it means facing some hard personal truths.

“We know from research that women have proven that they can be as effective or even more effective as leaders, so there's nothing that is actually holding women back except sometimes ourselves,” Herring says.

“With job openings there could be 10 qualifications, and if a woman doesn't fit all 10 criteria, she won't apply,” she explains. “Her male counterpart will apply if he matched maybe 50, 60 percent of the role.”

Beyond not talking yourself out of pursuing an opportunity, Herring also says it’s important for prospective female leaders to keep their eyes on what matters most.

“One of the big mistakes that women make is not focusing on how they can build their network,” Herring says. “Making sure that you're connecting with people who have influence over your career is a big opportunity.”

Herring advises women to focus on making sure they understand “the business of the business” and to think big-picture on how they can make an impact on the company as a whole.

It’s also important for businesses to keep in mind the goal of closing the leadership gap. “We're not saying that we're going to put unworthy women in these leadership roles, but that we want to make a more equitable workforce,” she says. “We want to create opportunities across the board. And if we're not doing some of these things, we're not even going to get our foot in the door, much less stay.”

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter.