The value of diversity is well recognized today. Yet study after study finds that the pipeline of women narrows at each successive level of most organizations. While we see milestones in the number of women in corporate boardrooms and C-suites, most would agree that women’s progress into senior business leadership roles remains mixed.

Together, executive search firm Spencer Stuart and ACORD, the global standards-setting organization for the insurance industry, conducted in-depth discussions with several senior women leaders about turning points in their careers. We drew upon the individual and organizational lessons learned in our new report, “Increasing Gender Diversity in Insurance Leadership.” Their insights provide not only the “why” but also the “how” for building gender diversity in the leadership pipeline. We’ll focus here on the “how.”

Here’s what companies can do to build the leadership pipeline:

Signal the importance of gender diversity from the top. Evidence shows that increasing diversity requires clear and consistent support from the CEO and senior management, and male leaders generally. Executive leadership sets the tone at the top that diversity is a priority and sets expectations that succession plans and candidate slates will include women.

Make leaders accountable for sponsoring and developing women. Affinity groups, mentorship programs and the like can only go so far in advancing gender diversity. Because the desire to hire someone with similar backgrounds and perspectives is so powerful, the pipeline of women in leadership is unlikely to expand much without a formal process for spotting talented women early and articulating specific development plans for them. Truly increasing opportunities for women requires the active participation of male leaders, including setting expectations that they will identify high-potential women and commit to their development.

One idea we heard for increasing the number of women in the leadership funnel is to look further out when creating succession plans—not just two or three years out but five to six years—and reach into lower levels of the organization to identify high-performing women.

Truly increasing opportunities for women requires the active participation of male leaders, including setting expectations that they will identify high-potential women and commit to their development.
Avoiding making assumptions about women’s aspirations and interests and setting the expectation that leaders should reach out to people with diverse backgrounds also could help. As one female executive we spoke with explained, when leaders see women or people representing other kinds of diversity who could be qualified for a job, they should ask them to apply and encourage them.

Foster an environment that welcomes diverse perspectives. Recognizing our biases and encouraging leaders to be thoughtful about bringing diverse perspectives to their teams is a start. It’s also important to celebrate leaders who build diverse teams, because it’s hard to manage people who are different than you and can take more time.

Organizations and teams won’t evolve if they don’t embrace new ways of thinking. As more diverse perspectives are added to the team, however, it’s important to create a safe environment where different people can express their points of view.

What should women do to move into the leadership pipeline?

Speak up about your interests and aspirations. Even for leaders at the most senior levels of an organization, others may make assumptions about your interests and aspirations if you don’t articulate what you want.

For this reason, women shouldn’t assume people in the company, even your manager, knows the next move you want to make or where you see your career going over the long term. Communicate the value that you bring to the organization and learn how to advocate for yourself in a way that you’re comfortable with.

Don’t wait to feel ready. Women tend to think they need to meet all the qualifications for a position to apply for a role, and they often need a nudge from a sponsor or co-worker to consider applying for a new job. The women we interviewed all recall a time when they made a leap into a new role and learned that they could “figure it out” and succeed.

Continue expanding your knowledge. It’s important to have a lot of clarity about where you want your career to go and understand the potential tradeoffs—and be ready make adjustments as your career evolves. Invest the time to keep your knowledge and skills relevant by seeking training or reading up on new developments in the industry, technology and the world in general.

Build relationships. It can be a challenge for women to develop relationships in the same way that men do, as women may not get invited to social activities such as golf or even the fantasy football league. Nevertheless, helping others, tapping into external networks and finding authentic ways to build relationships with people across the organization is critical.

Read the full stories and advice from these women in the report, “Increasing Gender Diversity in Insurance Leadership,” available at