A rising tide lifts all boats, and when it comes to ensuring women’s representation, the impact is a tidal wave of innovative perspectives that help business and society flourish. For corporations, efforts to improve leadership diversity are measurably linked with profitability and value creation. Clearly, everyone has a stake in the advancement of women. Counterintuitively, efforts to increase the percentage of women in senior leadership may mask the real reason men continue to outnumber women at the top.

Women in the Workplace, a 2019 study from consulting firm McKinsey and Company and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit Lean In, observes that the glass ceiling, the invisible and systemic barrier that prevents women from rising to the top, “is not the biggest obstacle to women’s progression.” The real problem is the talent pipeline—or rather the lack of one. “And without fundamental changes early in the pipeline,” the study warns that “gains in women’s representation will ultimately stall.”

Progress is constrained by what the study has named the “broken rung.” The first step on the ladder to senior leadership is the move from an entry-level position to manager. Missing that first, most difficult, step is more than a setback for individual women. It starves companies of amazing talent, deprives them of diverse thought and threatens to push gender parity out of reach. Fixing it, the study urges, will “set off a positive chain reaction across the entire pipeline.

Fueling the pipeline requires reframing the importance of diversity and inclusion. It demands the commitment of companies to develop talented women from the entry level up. But it also calls for women to empower each other. As fellow Forbes contributor Keemia Ferasat, Founder and CEO of Style Salute, a digital media company focused on the positive power of women, points out in her latest post: “None of us are operating in a silo. Advancing women in our own communities and offices and providing opportunities for them to reach their potential is important both for attaining gender equality and also for meeting a wide range of international development goals.”

Women have found unique and effective ways to help one another, lifting each other up and paving new pathways to success. I draw from interviews with four remarkable women in marketing (including two managers whose expertise in mobile app marketing has earned them the title Mobile Hero) to shine a light on best practices all women can follow to work together and advocate for each other.

#1 Find your voice and amplify others.

Image of Melissa Lertsmitivanta, Marketing Director at realtor.com
Melissa Lertsmitivanta, Marketing Director REALTOR.COM

Melissa Lertsmitivanta was lucky enough to have mentors early in her career. It gave her a safe space to think boldly and develop new perspectives that have had a positive influence on her personal leadership style.  She’s built a career in various marketing roles over the last decade, previously at Electronic Arts and today, as Marketing Director at realtor.com, a national real estate portal that connects real estate professionals with serious home buyers, renters and sellers, Lertsmitivanta is giving back. She participates in mentoring programs and shares her knowledge and insights with junior marketers.  She also draws from her background – which includes a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Social Behavior and an MBA – to build confidence in her mentees. “It’s about helping others step outside their comfort zone to find their voice and be proactive about sharing insights to foster collaboration,” she says.

Mentoring helps build a strong pipeline of young women. “But it also ensures there are strong and diverse opinions at the table able to entertain new perspectives and see new opportunities,” Lertsmitivanta explains. To encourage productive dialog between product, marketing and engineering and drive positive impact for the company Lertsmitivanta also regularly hosts what she calls “mobile marketing 101” sessions. “When everyone has a deeper understanding of what they do, what everyone else does and how their work contributes to real results, it fosters a more collaborative and inclusive environment instead of one where each team just works in silos,” she says. The outcome is a virtuous cycle of gender-diverse empowerment and some fresh perspectives that even surprised Lertsmitivanta. She recalls an instance where marketing walked through the types of reporting teams rely on to make budget and campaign decisions, providing the data engineering team the input it needed to build a new dashboard and automate key processes. Her advice: “Lead by example and empower others to do the same.” Encouraging a culture of inclusion exposes every individual to fresh perspectives, new ideas and creative approaches that benefit the team and the organization. 

#2 Encourage the best in yourself and others.

Image of Bruna Amaya, Head of Marketing at Hotel Urbano
Bruna Amaya, Head of Marketing HURB

At the age of 24, Bruna Amaya wouldn’t ordinarily be focused on coaching colleagues and finding ways she can build a strong pipeline of talent. But her determination to do both is positively influenced by her meteoric rise from intern to Head of Marketing at Hurb, a Brazil-based company providing an online platform that enables travelers to find and reserve accommodation and activities. “It’s positive proof of what women can achieve when they have the opportunity to develop strong management experience early in their careers,” Amaya explains. “Moving up the ladder can be hard for women, but it’s even harder for young women.” Fortunately, Amaya also had support from her mentor João Ricardo Mendes, Hurb’s Founder and CEO.

Empowered to reach her potential, Amaya has also paved the way for new marketing approaches at Hurb. Rather than copy the campaigns that worked on the web to acquire users for the mobile app, Amaya pushed her team to adopt a new mindset and an innovative strategy to reach and engage mobile-first audiences. The results were off the charts. “Retention improved rapidly, and the user base grew by 3X,” she recalls. “It’s critical to be curious and never stop asking questions—and encourage everyone on your team to do the same.” Her advice to young women reaching for the top: borrow a page from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that explains the difference between managers and great managers. Don’t play checkers and treat your team as if they are interchangeable uniform pieces destined to all move in the same direction. Instead, play chess. “Get to know and value the unique abilities of the diverse talents in your team, and encourage each individual to excel and achieve their potential.”

#3 Broaden your horizons with strategic networking.

Image of Dini Mehta, Chief Revenue Officer of Lattice
Dini Mehta, Chief Revenue Officer LATTICE

A career path that spans science, sales and now responsibility for all activities that generate revenue at her company have exposed Dini Mehta to diverse ideas and the importance of creating an environment where they flourish. As Chief Revenue Officer of Lattice, a people management platform that helps HR leaders build high-performing teams, Mehta is positioned to make a contribution that elevates the position of people of all backgrounds, both in her company and in the workforce at large. “Lattice is hoping to help bridge the gap between HR, managers and employees to help foster a strong culture where employees can feel empowered” Mehta explains. “Startups and fast-growth companies understand this notion that investing in your people is a critical part of investing in your business. This is a core part of our go-to-market strategy that we believe enables companies—and their employees—to reach their potential.”

Investing in people is baked into Lattice’s corporate DNA—so much so that the company recently launched a fund to do it. The Invest In Your People Fund supports Lattice employees who go on to start their own companies. According to a company blog post, employees who start a new company within 12 months of leaving are eligible for an investment of “up to $100,000 either at a $5 million valuation or at the terms of a seed round you are raising, whichever is higher.”

Mehta also encourages her team and the women she mentors within the Lattice Ladies Employee Resource Group, a critical piece of her organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy, to take a strategic approach to networking. She leads by example, setting a goal of “meeting with at least two female leaders each month to learn from their story.” It’s about forming close connections with women who have been there, done that—and it’s the exchange that has helped Mehta frame her own stretch goals. “It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and it broadens your horizons,” she says. Her advice: “Reach out to women leaders on LinkedIn and suggest a quick Zoom coffee call, or the equivalent, and come prepared with a list of four questions you’d like to walk through.” Also, reach out beyond direct connections to get out of your inner-circle echo chamber. “Networking helps bridge the gap between diverse and non-diverse, helping you appreciate a variety of perspectives.”

#4 Focus on mutual benefit, not bonding.

Image of Jennifer Burrington, SVP of Global Sales at Interceptd
Jennifer Burrington, SVP of Global Sales INTERCEPTD

Networking helps women unlock their potential and bring other women up the rungs. But recent research suggests that significant differences in how women cultivate relationships—and their expectations about the outcomes—may be the biggest bias women face on the path to success. Broadly speaking, the research states, men tend to be more tactical, building gender-diverse networks to get them to a specific goal, such as gathering information about a specific employer they might be interested in or a new direction they might want to pursue. Women, on the other hand, tend to maintain a female-dominated inner circle of contacts for support, which can feel socially secure but fail to generate key opportunities.

It’s a trait that can be traced to the cultural and systemic hurdles women face as they strive to stand up for themselves and others, observes Jennifer Burrington, SVP of Global Sales at mobile marketing fraud detection company Interceptd. “To bridge the gender inequality gap, women build circles of trust to find their voices and show they have each other’s backs,” Burrington explains. After two decades in a variety of roles in marketing and sales leadership at companies including Sprint, Electronic Arts, Conversant and multiple ad-tech start-ups, Burrington has learned to appreciate “the huge difference between leaning on women for support and relying on every woman to lift you up.” It’s about focusing efforts on developing business relationships, not friendships, she says. “You can’t count on every woman to help you reach your own potential, but you can be a role model through your actions to collectively help all women move the needle together.”

Women may have been socialized into thinking that advancing women in organizations is a zero-sum game, Burrington explains. But women have to learn to “shut out this superficial noise” that drains their collective energy and weakens their combined impact. “If other women aren’t standing up for you, stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself,” Burrington says. But never harbor resentment. “Instead, think daily about the ways you can extend an olive branch and be a good representative of women in business.” Why? Because investing in women can impact every individual and every company. “An inclusive environment results in a more satisfied workforce and a greater potential for increased productivity and profits,” Burrington explains. And she’s not alone. Reams of recent research reveals a significant correlation between female leadership and company profitability. Her advice: Take the high road and help women over the hurdles. “Foster healthy, open and inclusive conversations, not exclusive ones.” 

Resourceful, innovative and generous women like these are creating a culture of encouragement for the next generation of female leadership. Thanks to their efforts, the broken rung may soon cease to block women’s advancement. In fact, we may need to retire the ladder metaphor completely, and replace it with a staircase that women can climb side by side, together.