01/11/2016 13:09 GMT | Updated 01/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Unleashing Female Leadership Potential

Gender inequality remains undeniable across much of the business world, and is particularly visible at leadership level. Having worked in the banking and finance sector for over two decades, I have seen and been part of attempts to address this issue. It's clear there is growing commitment to programmes and investments that develop more women into industry leaders.

While things are, on the whole, getting better, the financial services industry is one of the worst sectors in terms of gender imbalance and progress towards equalising the number of women and men on boards and executive committees is slow. At the current rate, it will take another 30 years for women to reach even 30% representation on global executive committees.

Analysis shows that women enter the workplace with similar ambitions to men: 58% of women and 59% of men starting out in financial services desire to reach a senior position. Why then, are so many women struggling to become leaders? The crucial point is when women reach the midpoint of their careers and become conflicted between their personal lives and their professional ambition, much more so than men.

At this juncture, insufficient flexible working options, inadequate support for family responsibilities, shortcomings in promotion opportunities, pay inequality and biases embedded in the organisation's culture present significant obstacles to women. As a result, they show their dissatisfaction with their feet, taking their talent straight out the door.

This clearly tells us that businesses need to take a more active role in unleashing female talent into leadership. For example, at the highest level a talent strategy needs to be set and communicated and followed through with the utmost commitment. The executive committee should have no qualms pushing for more flexible working, better parental leave and effective return to work programmes. The stigma around using these benefits needs to be challenged and unconscious biases that lead to gender differences in pay and promotions should be acknowledged and addressed.

As an example of how cultural change can happen, at my company, Oliver Wyman, employees of all genders came together to establish a group called 'Women of Oliver Wyman' - WOW for short. The group works to attract, retain, and develop our female talent to its full potential and to help foster a more respectful and inclusive environment for everyone. WOW has identified and made visible strong female role models to inspire future leaders. They also provide reverse mentoring for male leaders in the business, where women share what it is actually like working in Oliver Wyman, and give advice on what would help improve it. WOW advises on policies like shared parental leave and suggests solutions for any bottlenecks in the female talent pipeline.

Improving the proportion of women in the most senior is not just about "doing the right thing": it's actually good business. If a workplace is not equally supportive of all genders, then they risk losing the best talent to competitors. I've seen the rewards from hiring highly qualified, capable women and of developing female talent to its full potential: it brings fresh perspectives that can lead to innovative and improved solutions for clients and the company.

While the business world is making headway in unleashing the potential from more women in leadership, progress needs to accelerate. Today's leaders must take a stand for the good of their own businesses as well as for the leaders of tomorrow - of every gender identity.