If you think the gender gap is on a slow and steady path toward closing in the next 25 years, think again. If your guess is closer to 100 years, that’s warmer — but the snail’s pace of progress is still slower than you think.

The latest Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum points to a more pessimistic forecast. In fact, for the first time since 2008, the gap between men and women in the workforce has actually widened. The 2016 report projects the gap won’t close until 2186 — 53 years later than its forecast in the 2015 report.

So, what’s behind the backward motion, and what can we do to speed up the tide?

Cause and Effect: Today’s Gender Gap

The annual WEF report measures gender parity in terms of education, health, economic opportunity, and political empowerment. While you don’t have to look too hard to find highly visible examples of progress across these categories, there are two main impediments standing in the way of closing the gap. The first is tied to workplace culture; the second is more structural.

The business case for gender diversity in the workplace has widespread acceptance today based on proven correlation to better results and corporate performance. In recent decades, companies have responded with family-friendly policies, diversity initiatives, and leadership training programs for women. The next hurdle facing business is about turning the intent behind these programs into workplace culture. And that means overcoming some entrenched — albeit unconscious — biases.

Underlying the undeniable progress that’s been made, there’s still a cultural perception that sees success and leadership images as male. These types of unconscious images create what’s known as the “double bind,” which results in women being negatively judged in the workplace for actions that would be accepted if taken by a man. Also at play is the fact that people are more likely to build business relationships with people who think and act like they do.

Recognizing the tendency for workplace culture bias toward more masculine traits is the first step for companies looking to accelerate progress. Gender diversity programs — combined with an increased emphasis on valuing of feminine strengths alongside the masculine — puts in motion the potential for true change in workplace culture over time. Companies that are able to embrace diversity of thought and experience will find themselves better able to navigate in today’s rapidly changing competitive environments.

The other obstacle to further narrowing the gender gap is structural in nature. In the 1960s, American workers spent less time on the job than their European or Japanese counterparts. However, in the 1990s, work hours began increasing, with dual-earner couples working a combined 82 hours per week as of 2000. In short, the hours consumed by paid work have outpaced the corporate and social policies in place to provide support. Today, when work-family policies are compared, the U.S. comes in last among countries with comparable economies.

As a result, in order to balance work and family, men and women are often forced to make decisions that may not align with their attitudes or opportunities. Instead, many women make career decisions based on practical, situational concerns. Without support, sponsorship, and strategic opportunities early in their careers, women have countless struggles. They drop off their career tracks and find it difficult to get back on, leading to fewer reaching top leadership positions.

Attacking the Gap Today

The challenges to achieving gender parity can feel daunting, but they’re not insurmountable. Here are three steps that your company can take today to have a tangible impact on the gender gap in the years ahead:

1. Track your performance.
Treat gender parity as key business metric. Just like other KPIs, having tracking in place keeps the focus on progress — or the lack thereof. Tracking a mix of quantifiable metrics like hiring, retention, and promotion rates for women creates accountability, especially when combined with more qualitative feedback through regular employee surveys. In turn, you gain insights that enable you to identify and address issues more efficiently along the way.

2. Disrupt bias.
Awareness of bias is the first —and most important — step to removing it. Do a thorough audit of your talent management practices to identify where unconscious bias may be affecting hiring decisions, promotions, or succession planning. Then, have the tough discussions to raise the consciousness level among company leaders and implement strategic shifts in processes.

3. Nurture potential for women — and men.
Providing support, mentors, and advocates for high-potential female employees is critical. Hold leadership accountable for creating environments that support the development of female employees at different stages in their careers. At the same time, as you refine the support and programs designed to improve opportunities for women, don’t forget to optimize the effects on men as well. For example, enhanced paternity leave contributes to an improved workplace environment and improved work-family balance for both genders.

Instead of looking at the stalled progress toward gender equality as a negative, look at it as an opportunity. While many of the challenges facing businesses today are out of your control, narrowing the gender gap is achievable and effective.

The companies that are able to learn from female role models — and adapt to today’s best practices to create their own strategies for gender-balanced teams — are well-positioned for measurable economic success.

Author's Bio: 

Sona Jepsen is the global head of sales enablement at Fidelity National Information Services (FIS). Her team empowers FIS’s global sales teams with sales content, strategic insights, and world-class learning and development opportunities.