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We've all seen the depressing statistics and heard the even more depressing stories about the lack of women in leadership roles, despite studies showing how much organizations gain from having a more balanced team at the top. We seem stuck, like a car in a snow drift, spinning our wheels, repeating the same despairing complaints, helpless about responding effectively.

Lareina Yee is a practical person, a principal at McKinsey & Co.'s San Francisco office, who has immersed herself deeply in the research about women and leadership, as well as trying to improve the situation with her clients. She has developed five questions, shared in The McKinsey Quarterly, which, she believes, if asked and answered systematically, can lead to significant improvement.

1. Where are women in the talent pipeline?

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She begins with the data, viewing the organization as a funnel or ladder, with people streaming through various stages, and determining the percentage of women at each. Given that more women than men are graduating from university, often the number of women at the lowest levels is impressive. But at what stage do they fall by the wayside in your organization?

"There is lots of discussion about the lack of women at the top. But you need to know what is happening at every stage up. You'll find you have leaks. So it's not just a matter of recruiting women for the top. You are spending a lot on human capital but losing women," she said in an interview.

This narrows the problem, allowing you to see areas where things seem to be working and others where you are fumbling. You can then figure out an improvement plan.

2. What skills are we helping women to build?

Often companies seek to improve women's ability to build networks, which she agrees is vitally important. But in talking to successful women, what came across to her is the importance of resilience, grit and confidence. "They talked of bouncing back from reversals and pushing through walls to make things happen," she said.

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. Grit is resolve, courage and strength of character. Confidence is self-assurance, based on an accurate appreciation of your abilities. Usually these are, she said, like "a less-developed muscle" that needs to be and can be strengthened. "Women don't lack the capacity. Once they start applying the muscle, they can improve," she said. Help them.

3. Do we provide sponsors along with role models?

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Most companies try to provide women with mentors. But she believes they have to focus on offering sponsors – individuals who do more than mentor, actively seeking to provide opportunities – as well as role models, so women can see paths and styles to follow.

"Men get sponsored more than women," she said. In her survey of female leaders, 60 per cent said that if they could relive their careers, they would secure more sponsors. But beyond that, they must also have role models. When women are thinking of opting out, they often will say they can't see anybody at the top they can relate to, with so few female executives.

Ask on your annual employee survey whether individuals have "one or more sponsors" and then compare the results for women and men. Ask men in senior roles how many sponsor at least one woman. Ask the women in leadership positions what they are doing to be more visible role models.

4. Are we rooting out unconscious biases?

When an executive suggests, kindly, that a woman wouldn't want a post because it's travel-intensive, basing that idea not on what the individual has actually said but on beliefs about women and family, that's an unconscious bias holding the woman back. And organizations, at all levels, are replete with such notions that are thwarting the progress of women. "Smart companies work hard to make unconscious biases more conscious, and then to root them out so that they don't affect the culture in wide-ranging and unhelpful ways," she wrote.

5. How much are our policies helping?

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Organizations feel they have done their bit by bringing in policies on maternity leave and flexible working hours. But are those programs working in your company? Get the facts. Often, for example, she feels the length of maternity leaves and related financial support are inadequate. "The policies are usually not as forward-looking as they could be," she said.

She feels the toughest question has to do with the unconscious biases. She doesn't call for quotas but, as with any business effort, you need targets and time lines for improvement. "Companies can improve in developing leaders with some practical things they can implement on Monday morning. There are a lot of tangible actions companies can take," she concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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