Identifying the sources of inequality in the workplace can give new voices a chance to drive innovation and boost business. Pixabay

The number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies recently hit an all-time high…of 32. That's discouraging. Despite some progress in recent years, women still lag far behind men in corporate America. Most companies suffer from systemic barriers that prevent qualified women from advancing.

This paucity of female executives and managers isn't just bad for women — it's bad for business. Companies dominated by men miss out on the diverse perspectives that female leaders bring to the table. By challenging the paradigm of homogenous thinking, diverse management teams consider a broader range of ideas, may develop better solutions to company problems and can generate new strategies for growth.

The gender gap in business leadership is staggering. Women make up almost half of entry-level hires. But they only hold a third of managerial positions. Just one in five senior vice presidents is a woman. And the boardroom is a boy's club. Four in five board members are men.

Ambitious women face several barriers that their male peers don't contend with. First, many people don't perceive women as natural leaders. For centuries, men occupied top positions. So our notion of "good leadership" became associated with stereotypically masculine qualities. People generally think of successful leaders as "assertive," "dominant" and "forceful," according to one analysis of 69 different studies. Stereotypically feminine traits like "compassionate" and "gentle" are perceived as unimportant — or harmful.

Regardless of workplace performance, women who display feminine qualities are pegged as weak leaders, so they aren't picked to advance. Nearly half of business owners believe that men are inherently better suited for high-level positions. This summer, a Google engineer circulated a viral memo that suggested women don't seek upper management roles because they're not capable of handling the added stress and aren't biologically wired to want positions of power.

At the same time, women who do fit the mold of male leadership are shunned for breaking traditional notions of femininity. Women are perceived as 35 percent less competent when they are assertive or forceful, according to an analysis by VitalSmarts. Another study of junior attorneys at a Wall Street law firm found that women who didn't display enough "interpersonal warmth" were assessed poorly.

That's a catch 22: Women are chastised if they're assertive but won't be promoted if they're not.

Even if gender stereotypes aren't at play, other biases can exclude women. Hiring managers tend to favor candidates who share their interests and backgrounds, according to research by Kellogg School of Management professor Lauren Rivera. These biases result in fewer opportunities for women to prove themselves.

For example, projects led by men receive twice the budget and three times the staff of female-led projects, on average. Women are also less likely to be mentored and receive career advice from higher-ups, even though such support helps people win promotions.

Structural flaws hold women back too. High-level meetings or extra projects may be scheduled after hours. For female business leaders with young children, staying late may not be an option. When they can't network with executives, they're left at a disadvantage. This could explain why women are 15 percent less likely to receive a promotion than a similarly-qualified man. And these biases lead to more homogenous decision making. A C-suite dominated by men could reject innovative new ideas or make major mistakes.

Diverse leadership teams make better decisions that boost the value of their firms. One study of 1,400 corporations found that having women on the board of directors decreased the chance — and severity — of fraud. Companies that had at least one woman among their top management team were worth $42 million more, on average, than companies with all-male leadership, according to a study of 1,500 publicly traded U.S. companies conducted by professors at Columbia and the University of Maryland.

Companies can diversify by consciously eliminating structural biases and establishing transparent, fair procedures for promoting employees. Just look at Deloitte: In the early 1990s, the company realized its demanding travel schedule and male-dominated company culture were disadvantaging female employees. Only 6 percent of directors, partners, and principals — and just 23 percent of senior managers — were women.

So Deloitte made a change. The company cut back on extended business trips, asked employees for input on their career trajectory, and paired female leaders with executive mentors. The changes took time — but worked. The share of women executives nearly quadrupled by 2009. By then, women occupied nearly four in ten senior management roles. In 2015, Deloitte named its first female CEO.

Identifying the sources of inequality — and making small changes to address them — can give new voices a chance to drive innovation and boost business.

Radoslaw Nowak is an assistant professor of Human Resource Studies in the School of Management at New York Institute of Technology.