By Melissa J. Anderson

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, business writer Roger O. Crockett wrote that when it comes to the corporate space, women of color are “woefully underrepresented in leadership.”

Citing Andrea Jung’s recent departure from Avon, Crockett explained that there are now only two women of color chief executives in the Fortune 500 (Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi and Xerox’s Ursula Burns).

In fact, Catalyst recently released its 2011 Census of Fortune 500 Board Directors, Executive Officers, and Top Earners, which showed that women make up only a small percentage of corporate leadership. While the Census did not track executive officers or top earners by ethnicity, it did record the ethnicity of board directors.

And the numbers were hard to swallow. On average, women made up 16.1% of Fortune 500 boards. But women of color occupied only 3% of director seats. And that could be costly for corporations looking to grow and innovate.

Financial Incentives

Crockett believes that the lack of women of color in top corporate positions is a huge financial misstep for top companies. He writes, “The boards of directors and executive management teams of America ought to be equitably represented by women, and those women must be ethnically diverse.”

He points out that according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, the combined buying power of African Americans, Asians and Native Americans is expected to grow to $2.1 trillion in 2015 (an increase of by $500 billion. Hispanic buying power will grow to $1.5 trillion in 2015. Combined, this will represent about 16% the nation’s total buying power. Without diverse talented leadership at the helm, companies are likely to miss out on some of this market share – leaving it to more inclusive competitors. Crockett writes:

“With markets that lucrative at stake, corporate decision makers would benefit from innate understanding of how to sell to them. The fact is, women generally drive the purchasing decisions within these communities, just as they do in the rest of the population. And the sensibilities of women of color only enhance a management team’s or a board’s ability to strategize ways for reaching these markets. Why then are these women so absent from our leadership ranks?”

Considering Catalyst’s latest numbers, companies are mired in an age-old stereotype of what leadership “should” look like. In fact, only 14.1% of all executive officer positions were held by women, and only 7.5% of executive officer top earners were women. In this changing marketplace, thinking differently about leadership effectiveness and strategy could be the key to improving corporate diversity – and driving larger returns.

What Companies Can Do

Catalyst suggests that companies must work harder hold diversity work accountable for business goals. When diversity initiatives are aligned with business objectives, they make more sense to the individuals who hold the purse strings within an organization – and attaching dollar signs to this kind of work can sway those who are still in doubt about the value of diversity.

But according to Ilene Lang, CEO of Catalyst, companies that are really successful at instilling leadership diversity are truly actionable when it comes to the implementation of diversity initiatives, and making sure everyone has the same opportunities for advancement – regardless of their background. She said:

“Particularly in today’s challenging economy, staying competitive in an increasingly global marketplace requires cultivating fresh perspectives and you don’t get that by perpetuating an ‘all of the same’ leadership model. Catalyst encourages organizations to step up and ensure that talented employees—regardless of gender—have opportunities to advance and contribute. It’s the smart thing and the right thing to do.”

Similarly, Crockett points out that companies that lack ethnically diverse women at the top likely have poor talent management programs. They lack the ability to accurately measure the contributions of individuals.

He quotes Ginny Clarke, CEO of Talent Optimization Partners, who said, “If you don’t have a system that allows you to identify who’s good, better and best — without regard to gender and ethnicity — then your success will be limited.”

By making sure individual successes are tracked and measured fairly and objectively, organizations can be sure they are able to reduce microinequities when it comes to who gets to advance and why.