What would be the outcome if a company designed a car that fit the specifications of only half its market? What do you think would happen if a male-only team at another company developed a marketing strategy for feminine products? Both companies would have missed big business opportunities,

Real companies are making the same mistake. How does this happen? One reason is that women still do not participate fully in the workforce in important leadership positions.

I wrote recently about the lack of women representation in corporate boards. If we look among Fortune 500 companies, still women make up only 19 percent of corporate board representation despite constituting half of the labor market. With women making close to 80 percent of household purchasing decisions and accounting for a projected $18 trillion in spending worldwide, it makes good business sense to incorporate women’s perspectives. Gender diversity is essential. It renders the workplace more just and equitable, and it can positively impact the firm’s performance and competitiveness.

So I researched actionable ways in which business leaders can promote gender equality and thrive. I concluded that dramatic change happens when successful practices supported by accurate data are coupled with the personal commitment of business leaders in tapping women’s strengths.

Here are three ways forward-thinking companies can advance gender diversity in their workforces and their overall performance:

1. Look at the data, identify the problem and actively measure its development.

An important part of gender diversity is to be transparent in gathering evidence and to make decisions based on thorough data analysis. An honest assessment of where the organization is allows for an accurate roadmap of where the company should be. For example, measuring the gender breakdown before and after initiative implementation allows for company to measure their outcome. Initiatives can range from allowing for paternity leave to talent search focused on women executives. It is not enough to simply identify and document best practices. To move forward, organizations must connect practices to real results. In this way the real drivers can be identified.

2. The search for female talent must be embedded in overall human capital strategy.

For successful recruitment of female talent, businesses must align their diversity strategy with their overall recruiting strategy and collaborate with stakeholders outside the company. For instance, increasing diversity in senior management by simply hiring women from outside the company ignores the fact that most of the company’s senior positions depend on institutional knowledge.

Companies must also focus on addressing the unique health and financial needs of women if they hope to attract successful managerial talent. When women reach middle management positions, there is usually a drop in women representation; however, this decrease is partially offset at higher career levels. A valid reason for this discrepancy has to do with women’s child bearing and raising years. Not only do women have extra health needs for bearing children, but also in most cases they are responsible for the health and education of the child until they are older. Therefore, companies might want to engage public policy advocates so standard health and child services are aligned with the female professional cycle.

3. Ownership is key.

For these initiatives to translate into real change, business leaders must be personally involved. Studies show that what matters most is not the presence of a particular diversity program, but how it is “owned.” For example, if the opportunity of working from home twice a week were to be implemented as an effort to increase gender equality and yet the manager never seems to support it verbally or by setting the example, most likely the program won’t yield valid results. True leadership engagement in the way programs and employees are led is key in driving gender diversity success.

The world is becoming more connected and global, and companies with greater diversity are more competitive, partly because they can better connect. More women in leadership positions encourages cooperation among teams and promotes flexibility and an egalitarian work balance. It is my experience that creativity is one of the key factors to business success. Therefore, companies that are receptive to broader perspectives and new ideas that come with encouraging a diverse working environment are most likely to thrive.