Written by: Christie Coplen, consultant, Spencer Stuart, and member of AutomotiveNEXT

We’re all familiar with the numbers. Study after study finds greater numbers of women “disappearing” at each successive level of most organizations. According to a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, by the time women reach the SVP level, they hold just 20 percent of the line roles that are the most likely to lead to the C-Suite. That number dips to 16 percent for women in automotive and industrial manufacturing. Ethnic and racial minorities also are underrepresented at all levels of leadership. Research has found that of executives one to three levels below the CEO, only 8 percent were Asian males, and black and Hispanic leaders of both genders combined constituted less than 7 percent.

The sheer scale of systemic change required to make meaningful progress in diverse representation in leadership roles can seem overwhelming. A question I hear often is: “Where do we begin?” Here are some practical steps senior leaders and their organizations can take now to improve diversity and inclusion.

Be the change
Many leaders we talk with have attested to the power of setting an example. Leaders in functions from human resources to legal are building diverse teams of their own as a model for the rest of the organization. Prioritize diversity on your own team and communicate wins to the broader organization to help reinforce the message that diverse teams are successful teams.

Remove unconscious bias in assessment
We are all biologically inclined to like and trust people similar to us. Despite a desire to improve diversity and be more inclusive, unconscious bias can undermine these efforts whether candidates are being considered for promotion or hired externally. A key way to combat this is to agree on a common vernacular about what capabilities are needed for success — such as openness to learning and change management — rather than going with “gut feelings” on culture fit or traits that have little to do with performance in the job.

An effective assessment scores leaders on an objective set of leadership capabilities, so individuals can be directly compared to one another and to the requirements of the role, as well as fit with the company’s current culture or the one that it’s building.

Examine your search criteria when hiring
Use gender-neutral language in the job description and presentation materials. Research shows that even seemingly insignificant word choices such as “rock star,” “guru” or “work hard, play hard” can deter female candidates. In addition, require that each search have a diverse slate of candidates and hold your colleagues accountable if their candidate pools reflect the status quo. For example, SAP has talked about how its leaders must present dashboards each quarter with both business and people results.

Support diverse talent
Hiring more diverse leaders is only half the battle. The onboarding experience is especially important for diverse candidates entering a non-diverse environment. At a recent event we hosted for HR leaders, Marcelo Modica, chief people officer at Mercer, and Erika Irish Brown, chief diversity officer at Goldman Sachs, advised that organizations need to embrace diverse talent early in their transition to the company and help them feel like they are part of the organization. Without the inclusion component, Brown cautioned that retention becomes a problem: “Without inclusion, you have people who want to leave because they don’t feel they have a voice, they don’t fit in with the culture and they don’t have contemporaries who are showing them where the hidden landmines are or helping them understand the culture.”

Set up diverse talent with sponsors who can help them navigate the unwritten rules of the culture and serve as a support system. In addition, give diverse talent exposure and visibility with top management. When people see that the organization is invested in their success and that they have opportunities for advancement, they are more likely to stay.

Commit at the C-level
While it may seem rote, tone at the top really does make a difference. We were fortunate enough to talk about this very issue with Julia Steyn, vice president of urban mobility programs and Maven at General Motors Corporation. She shared how GM CEO Mary Barra brings together the senior women in the company and challenges them to think about how to encourage women to develop the women behind them. The CEO’s direct attention on increasing diversity is a powerful force for change. “I don’t think anything happens by accident. You have to have an intent to change, and this senior leadership team and the leadership team before have had the intention to move the needle on diversity and the behaviors of the company,” said Steyn.

Consider the culture
In order to talk about diversity and inclusion, there needs to be a safe space for that conversation. The organization’s culture can help create that space. (For a deeper dive on organizational culture, our guide is one of HBR’s 10 Must Reads of 2019.) Understanding the culture and how it may encouraging or discouraging diversity is important, as is gaining agreement about the kind of culture the organization wants to build. To truly transform the composition of a company’s workforce and leadership, organizations have to be willing to be bold.

Christie Coplen is a consultant in Spencer Stuart’s Industrial and Automotive practices, and a member of the firm’s Leadership Advisory Services team. She has extensive experience in digital and technology roles.