More than two centuries. That’s how long it will take to achieve gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report. There is widespread agreement we can’t wait that long.

Organizations have talked about gender balance for a very long time, yet progress is slow. As a result, many professional women are skeptical of talk of change. At the same time, the #MeToo movement has put the spotlight on some of the very real challenges women face in the workplace and beyond.

So what needs to change? And what can leaders do to support gender equality and foster a workplace where women can thrive?

Wall St's Fearless Girl statue faces down the Charging Bull last year.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018, PwC carried out a survey aimed at findings answers to these questions.

Over 3,600 women around the world from employers representing 27 different industry sectors shared their views on their career experiences and aspirations. We focused on women aged 28-40, because it’s at this stage that we start to see female representation gaps widen and the challenges of combining personal and career priorities increase.

The survey revealed some positive findings.

Women are more confident and ambitious than ever: 82% are confident in their ability to fulfil their career aspirations and 77% in their ability to lead, while 73% are actively seeking career advancement opportunities. Women are proactively pursuing their career goals by negotiating for raises and promotions, and seeking out the experiences seen as critical to advancing their careers. And our survey showed it’s working – the women who negotiate are getting what they ask for.

But the survey also highlights that we still have a long way to go.

We’ve identified three strategies that are essential to creating a more inclusive working environment where women – and men – can succeed. But these cannot be addressed in isolation. Leaders need to work on all three strategies simultaneously as part of their broader efforts to create real change:

1. Transparency and trust matter. A lot

Many of the women we surveyed said they don’t trust what their employer is telling them about career development and promotion, or what helps or hurts their career. To improve career development opportunities, they identified greater transparency (58%) as the critical step employers can take.

This means offering employees a clear understanding of the expectations on both sides of the employment equation, including information about career progression, and open conversations as to where they stand and what is expected of them to advance their career so they can make their own case successfully and trust the feedback they get.

Greater transparency won’t only benefit women – it will foster a more inclusive environment which gives men and women greater opportunities to fulfil their potential.

2. Support networks go a long way

Women won’t succeed without formal and informal support networks. They need the proactive networks of leaders and peers who will develop, promote and champion them as they pursue their career aspirations, both at home and in the workplace.

Women need dedicated sponsors and role models of both genders. Lack of support from male colleagues will stall progress. Providing this level of support may seem complex, but it can be done. Men have had it for years.

3. Tackling the motherhood and flexibility challenge

Women universally across the globe said working in a job they enjoy (97%) and having flexibility to balance the demands of their career and personal/family life (95%) was important to them. But many also feel nervous about the impact starting a family might have on their career (42%).

And many new mothers felt overlooked for promotions and special projects upon their return to work (48%). This was particularly true for new mothers from ethnic or racial minority groups (63%) and new mothers in Asia (68%).

Employers must pay special attention to these groups and proactively address their concerns, or they and their female employees risk facing a lose-lose situation: highly skilled talent will leave and women, meanwhile, will not fulfil their full potential. There is a clear concern over what women see as a motherhood and flexibility penalty.

Women need employers to rethink their approach to balancing work, life, parenthood and family care, to prevent bias, and to provide organisational solutions that work. Employers must recognize that everyone is making flexibility demands – it’s not a life-stage or gender-only issue – and help and encourage their people to take advantage of the programmes in place. A culture shift that recognizes performance over presence and overcomes outdated assumptions that women want to step back or opt out of their career when they become mothers is fundamental.

These three strategies won’t serve to only benefit women. They’ll make workplace cultures and talent systems more inclusive for everyone.

One thing is certain: there is a lot to be gained from creating a more equal working world. Gender equality in the workforce brings opportunity and prosperity for all. Enabling all genders to contribute equally in business and their personal lives makes for a more prosperous and functioning society.

Find out more about PwC’s 2018 International Women’s Day (IWD) research here. You can read Bob Moritz’s blog in support of #MentorHer here. And find out more about PwC’s role as a HeForShe Corporate Impact Champion here.