There’s no doubt that in recent years, substantial gains have been made for gender parity in the workplace. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up almost 47 percent of the U.S. workforce and 27 percent of chief executive positions.

Some think the case is closed and that times have moved on. However, women are still underrepresented in industries that are predicted to flourish, namely engineering, technology, architecture and mathematics, and are overrepresented in roles most likely to be replaced by automation and robotics, such as office and administration positions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the share of female workers in computer occupations has been declining since 1990. This data is compounded by stubbornly low levels of women in senior roles; the portion of senior positions held by women has risen just two percentage points since 2015, to 24 percent.

Women need to develop their learnability (their desire and ability to learn new skills to stay relevant and take advantage of new roles), and employers need to nurture women’s learnability to ensure they have the skills for the future. Progress begins with effective career conversations.

Regular career conversations are good for individuals and good for business, but women are disproportionately impacted by a lack of effective career conversations with their direct managers. Right Management research has found that just one in four women have had a career conversation about how their skills can be developed, and only one in five are having ongoing career conversations with their managers.

When male leaders say the best way to advance is to self-promote and be open to risks, challenges and new opportunities, employers risk losing top talent unless they start talking. The financial impact of staff turnover can be great; in a typical organization of 10,000 employees, a one-percent reduction in voluntary staff turnover can save over $6 million. Thirty-two percent of employees cite lack of career opportunities and type of work as the number-one reason for leaving an organization. Engaging in regular career conversations and introducing career development programs to understand and develop employees’ needs not only makes business sense but is a business imperative.

The career conversation is not a single conversation. More than a simple “add-on” to the performance management review, career conversations guide the future of an individual’s working life. They supplement annual reviews by occurring more frequently, continually aligning the employee and their manager. By meeting more regularly, both sides develop trust and agility. Opportunities are presented as they arise to help employees try new things, stretch themselves and develop their skills.

Career conversations are good for business, too. Take a sales representative as an example; if the time is being taken to mentor and coach the employee, that individual will be more effective and better with clients, engender trust, and secure new business.

Managers can explore this series of questions with employees to develop a plan:

  • Who am I? How do I fit in? This question helps the employee clarify their career goals and match them with their values, motivations and abilities.
  • What is expected of me? This question is an opportunity to work with the employee to develop goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
  • How will my talents and contributions be recognized? This question begins a meaningful dialogue about what intrinsically motivates the employee and how those motivations might change.
  • How am I doing? This question sparks an ongoing conversation between the manager and the employee to observe strengths and opportunities and provide feedback.
  • What’s next for me? This question helps identify steps to reach the employee’s next career goal.
  • What and how should I develop? This question helps determine an achievable timeline and actionable steps to develop individual skills needed for the current role and future roles.

These conversations have helped individuals make effective moves within their organization as a result of these conversations, which enable employees to speak candidly about their strengths, weaknesses and career goals. Developing and retaining diverse top talent starts with the easiest thing of all: a conversation.