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Gender parity isn’t just a feel-good vision: it is an economic imperative.

Women’s advancement and leadership are central to business performance and economic prosperity. While we continue to make progress toward securing equal opportunities for women in the workplace around the world, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Parity Report 2014 suggests gender parity in the workplace won’t actually be achieved until 2095. That’s 80 years away — a lifetime! Gender parity isn’t just a feel-good vision; it is an economic imperative and we cannot afford to wait 80 more years.

Take women entrepreneurs, for example. Despite robust growth in the early stages, women-owned companies are not scaling up to the degree that they could. In Canada, the number of women-owned businesses grew an explosive 208% between 1981 and 2001, in comparison to an increase of only 38% in businesses owned by men.

Yet companies led by women tend not to achieve the same growth as those led by men. A host of challenges pervasive among entrepreneurs — including the difficulty of accessing capital and limited networking opportunities — seem to be particularly acute among women business owners. So how can we address this?

During the seven years of EY’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, we’ve observed that meaningful change is driven in two ways. The first wave of change comes from women entrepreneurs themselves. Successful business owners are demonstrating that thinking big and being bold, building a public profile and working on the business rather than in it are key steps in growing their small companies into large ones. The companies of the winning women in our program — more than 60 of whom have led 20% revenue growth annually for their companies — tend to share certain characteristics, including  a clear, authentic purpose; a strong, supportive peer community; and owners who embrace a flexible and adaptable leadership style.

Equally important, though, is the second driver of change, which lies within the wider business community. After all, the entire ecosystem benefits when entrepreneurial organizations thrive.

So what actions can we take to support this essential group of entrepreneurs?

Build better networks. Savvy leaders of businesses both large and small know that there are two-way benefits to building broader networks that deliberately include women entrepreneurs. Experienced executives can provide valuable insights and encouragement to these entrepreneurs. In return, they receive a new source of diverse perspectives and experiences that may unlock insights for their own business challenges. The best leaders identify and track women entrepreneurs, building connections with high-potential owners in their communities. 

Invest deliberately. The investor community has an essential role to play in driving the growth that will power our whole economy. Investors should diversify their investments to include women-owned startups — not because it’s the "right thing to do" but because the business case has shown the financial rewards of doing so. Meanwhile, commercial banks need to be more receptive to women entrepreneurs and the wide range of businesses they lead.

Source more diverse suppliers. Choosing supplier organizations that are owned by women, or those explicitly committed to employing typically underrepresented groups, is a meaningful way to support growth. Local supplier-diversity organizations can help identify potential suppliers and provide guidance in building diversity criteria into your supplier considerations.

With proven benefits to be gained, including higher GDP, improved productivity, better share price and financial performance and general prosperity, it is in every organization’s best economic interest to remove the barriers that stifle the advancement of women leaders — as executive talent within our organizations or as entrepreneurs. Simply put, it’s time to accelerate change.