Every leader wants to create a thriving workforce.

It’s at the heart of what makes good companies great.

Apple comes to mind.

Whether you walk into an Apple store or talk to a customer service agent on the phone, you are met with a smile and a can-do attitude. You can feel the workforce thriving.

We advise thousands of companies large and small on this very issue, yet organizations are mired in legacy cultures and bureaucracies that make change difficult. We see it in companies around the globe.

But a growing body of data shows that aggressive Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) efforts – especially those which bring more women into the workforce and into upper levels of management – correlate with business growth.

Many firms fall short, but many are making solid efforts in driving true gender diversity. Others have a long way to go. Our When Women Thrive Global Report points out that while organizations might look like they’re making progress – bringing more women into the top echelons – the vast majority may be unraveling gender progress and threatening their future female workforce numbers.

That’s because diversity is a hot topic, leading many to create quick-fix or ad-hoc programs in order to show off their Diversity & Inclusion colors. The problem, though, is that without a holistic, data-driven approach, leaders run the risk of wasting dollars and failing to drive growth with the right talent, the right culture, and the right workplace.

What’s the solution?

Our research shows that there are six key areas of cultural and organizational change. Some 600 organizations participated in this global survey, placing it among the most comprehensive research to date on women in the workplace.

Let me touch on three of those critical six Ps:

Personal commitment – We know it’s essential that there’s a personal commitment from the top of organizations and throughout, by both men and women. For many leaders, that commitment comes from personal experience. We find that organizations where men actively support diversity and inclusion efforts make more progress on improving gender diversity than in those companies where men are not actively involved. Unfortunately, men today are not perceived to be strongly engaged in gender diversity efforts – only 38% of organisations say their men are engaged in D&I activities. There are numerous ways – and business reasons – to engage them.

Programmes – We don’t mean any kind of diversity program, but programs specifically for women. Our research and client work show that an organisation can improve its female workforce by understanding and supporting womens’ health and financial needs. Yet only 45% of organisations agree that supporting healthcare is important in attracting and retaining female talent. This doesn’t mean they’re actually doing something about it - in fact, only 22% of organisations conduct analyses to identify gender-specific health needs and education. As a starting point, organizations could offer and test the impact that women-centered health and financial education programs have on retention.

Proof – Despite an additional quarter-billion women entering the workforce since 2006, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, wage inequality persists with women only now earning what men did a decade ago.

Proof, or measurement of the impact of womens’ programs, including metrics like wage inequality, matters in two respects: first, it helps quantify the impact of diversity as a contributor to business growth; and second, it measures the effectiveness of those efforts on women's well-being.

Take, for example, leave and flexibility programs. When both men and women make use of leave programs, organizations exhibit higher female representation. Yet only 29% of organisations say they give their managers training to effectively support employees through maternity/paternity leave and return-to-work processes – and effectively counter any unconscious bias in rewards and promotion decisions that might be triggered by leave decisions.

Another area where proof matters is in the role placement of talent. Women thrive when their unique competencies are leveraged in high business-impact roles. Our research finds that women have different and unique skills – and in some areas considered most important to career success. Companies like UBS and Johnson & Johnson are leveraging women in innovation and R&D – areas critical to organizational growth. Yet, traditional job design and valuation often leaves business growth potential untapped, as roles and leadership competencies are more aligned, at many companies, with the relative strengths of men.

The good news is that we’ve moved from talking about “why” diversity matters to now focusing on “how” – how to do it right to drive growth while impacting families, communities, and economies.

By identifying the right actions to take today, companies will thrive tomorrow – along with the women who play such a key role in driving business success.

Author: Pat Milligan, Global Leader, When Women Thrive & Multi-National Client Group, Mercer