By Julie Kampf

Companies seeking senior leaders today nearly always make diversity a top priority—except for gender diversity—and few things pain me more than that exception. Over hundreds of high-level executive searches conducted by our team, even enlightened and inclusive employers routinely say that “gender is not really the issue.”

How is gender not an issue? Women make up more than half of management, professional and related occupations but just 14.1 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers, 7.5 percent of Fortune 500 top-earners and 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to Catalyst. The situation hardly improves beyond the Fortune 500. Just 3.9 percent of Fortune 1000 firms are headed by women, and USA Today reports that just 3.2 percent of 3,049 publicly traded companies have female CEOs.

This gap does not result from lack of female ambition. Even high-potential women who are proactive in their careers fall behind, according to a 2011 Catalyst study, and these are the women who do everything right when it comes to career management. Nearly every week I meet women who have the talent and tenacity to reach the top, yet they rarely make it.
How do we change that? To start, simple adjustments can make a big difference in attracting talented women. I spoke recently to a top candidate whose decision to take a senior-level job may depend on whether she can work from home once a week to ease the burden of a 120-mile roundtrip daily commute. She’s a single parent—more than 85 percent of single-parent households are headed by women—and her request may be non-negotiable.

She is not alone in wanting flexibility. In a 2012 survey of 550 high-level Wall Street women, women cited having more control over work arrangements as the top thing they would negotiate for besides money if they were starting a new job. Fairness does not have to mean identical arrangements for every employee, and companies that want to attract top women may need to make adjustments.

Retention and development present more challenges. New Federal Reserve Bank of New York research reported by Reuters suggests that “opting out” remains a reality. Fewer women are in the pipeline, and companies with top jobs to fill typically tell our team that their internal women are “not ready.” It’s crucial to prioritize strategies to retain and develop women.

Changing the culture may be the toughest hurdle. Senior management sets the tone, yet in 2012 research from McKinsey just 25 percent of women said they believe that their CEO is committed to gender diversity, and just 13 percent believe that their company’s top managers are committed to gender diversity.

Here’s the good news—change will happen. Within the next five to seven years a seismic demographic shift will force employers of all sizes to rethink the way they manage talent. The global workforce is shrinking, 10,000 U.S. baby boomers reach retirement age every day, and white men now account for just 17 percent of the educated global workforce, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Companies that want to compete will do what it takes to acquire, retain and develop top talent. And that top talent has to include women.

Julie Kampf is president and CEO of JBK Associates. Kampf has much experience in the field of consulting on recruitment and retainment in the workforce.