Business leaders know the importance of fostering equal opportunities for women and men to succeed in the workplace. Despite this, research shows that the progress towards gender equality has been slow. The latest annual Women in the Workplace report released by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org indicates that women are hired at lower rates than men, miss out on initial promotions, have less access to professional opportunities, and have few female role models at the leadership level.

However, McKinsey’s research also reveals that companies committed to diversity are more successful. In particular, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Today, businesses small and large must include a plan for supporting and advancing women in their overall business strategy. Experts recommend that core actions include ensuring fair practices in hiring and advancement, investing in employee training, and giving employees flexibility to achieve a work/life balance. In order for such a plan to be impactful, business owners and their leadership must be fully committed to gender equality and the fair treatment of all women and men in the workplace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day here at Summit Financial Resources, we’d like to share five ways you can empower the women on your team to achieve their personal and professional goals:

1 – Create a safe, supportive work environment.

Establishing safe working conditions and supportive health policies for all workers is good for business. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that workplace violence and harassment not only can result in bad publicity and litigation, but they are disruptive in terms of lower morale and productivity.

Small business owners today must adopt and enforce a zero-tolerance violence and sexual harassment policy and hire and promote employees whose values are aligned with their company’s commitment to creating a diverse and supportive working environment. Focus on ensuring that your female employees feel comfortable in your workspace and do not feel underestimated, undermined, or discriminated against based on their gender. This includes providing health insurance policies that respect your workers’ rights to medical and family leave.

2 – Invest in education and training.

The Harvard Business Review reports that 53 percent of entry-level positions are held by women, but just 19 percent of C-Suite executives are female. Business leaders need to understand that effective goal setting, education, and training are integral to empowering women to develop professionally and advance in their careers.

Encourage female employees to set objectives for themselves that are attainable, and challenge them to strive toward personal and professional growth. Companies that find ways to help women achieve their aspirations are more likely to retain those employees than companies that limit them to what is attainable.

Small business owners must give all employees equal access to company-supported education, mentoring, and vocational training programs. In addition, sharing constructive feedback and regularly recognizing female employees for their hard work can help instill confidence as well as show you are invested in their professional growth.

3 – Advocate, mentor, and inspire.

Whether you are male or female, as a business owner it is essential that you lead by example. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to serve as a mentor and an advocate for the women on your team. Learning from the experiences of successful female bosses helps women gain knowledge, insight, and the confidence to set and reach higher goals.

In addition, encourage the female managers in your company to work closely with women in junior positions to give them the tools and guidance they need to grow and advance. In the absence of seasoned women leaders, consider collaborating with an outside consultant to provide all female staff members with valuable career advice and support in overcoming workplace challenges and obstacles. This can result in a more skilled workforce and help fast-track the development of your top performers.

4 – Foster individualism.

Recognize your employees, not as a single group, but as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Evaluate each member of your staff for the value they bring to your organization, and acknowledge that their goals and paths to professional growth may not necessarily be the same.

For many small business owners, this means being flexible in your approach to everything from staffing to training. The good news is that agility is one of the biggest advantages small businesses have over larger competitors. Whether it means hiring more virtual staff, establishing flexible benefits or schedules, or budgeting for one-on-one learning opportunities, accepting people’s differences empowers your employees to carve their own career paths. The benefits to your business include improved morale, increased retention, and greater productivity.

5 – Build a culture of equality and empowerment.

Your workplace culture needs to convey a message of inclusiveness and gender diversity. Treat every employee fairly, regardless of gender. Ensure that top performing women are rewarded for their accomplishments and considered for and promoted to leadership positions. This sends a clear message to everyone on your team as well as prospective employees that your business thrives on the talents and contributions of women and men.

Empowering women in the workplace means creating opportunities for them to learn, grow, and achieve their professional goals, as well as recognizing and capitalizing on their skills and strengths to help your business grow.

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Summit Financial Resources specializes in working capital financing for small to medium-sized businesses that need increased cash flow. We provide working capital financing through invoice factoring, asset-based lending, inventory lending, and equipment financing.