In 2015, a significant milestone for women was achieved; for the first time, women became more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than men. They are also more likely to graduate on time and outpace men when it comes to obtaining a graduate degree. However, while women are increasingly more educated and make up more of the workforce, they consistently earn less than men in every industry. There are many theories about why that is, from women choosing less lucrative careers to unwillingness to negotiate. However, recent research has shown those classic suggestions are untrue, and there are other factors in play responsible for the pay gap.

But Isn’t Because of Choices?

According to the Pew Research Center, women made up just 5 percent of the United States’ CEOs and just 17 percent of corporate board members within Fortunate 500 companies. Many people dismiss these statistics as not indicative of any gender bias. The lack of management-level women and pay disparities are often dismissed as due to other issues, such as women limiting their own careers to start families, that they are inherently less ambitious about climbing the corporate ladder and do not have the ruthlessness or gravitas to handle the C-suite.

However, research from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org has shown very different findings. They studied 30,000 men and women, capturing attitudes about women in the workplace. The results are surprising and reveal continued issues concerning women who work. Some of the most interesting findings include

  1. The desire to be promoted: Men and women showed the same levels of ambition and desires for promotion. For both groups, more than 75 percent said they are actively working towards the next role, negating the idea that women are naturally less competitive or have lower goals.
  2. Women are more loyal: The lack of advancement for women is not linked to loyalty or turnover; on average, women spend more time with an employer than men.
  3. Lack of business priorities: The majority of men and women respondents said that advancing women’s careers were not a priority for their company’s leadership.

So What Really Holds Women Back?

Three main issues are affecting the pay gap and lack of women in leadership roles:

  1. Stereotypes: Stereotypes are difficult to overcome; they are built into our cultures over the course of decades. Women who speak up forcefully, using the same language and tone as male coworkers, are commonly viewed as “bitchy” or “bossy” rather than assertive and confident. Entrenched expectations of women connect them to being emotional, sensitive or irritable, even when it is not accurate.
  2. Unconscious bias: Attitudes towards women are deeply ingrained, and most people are not even aware of them. Those beliefs can manifest themselves during interviews when questions for women tend to focus more on how they focus on work-life balance rather than achievements, while interviews with men focus on what skills they bring to the table.
  3. Lack of role models: With so few women in leadership positions, even high-achieving women can struggle to climb the corporate ladder due to a lack of strong role models. Without women in high-profile positions within their company, women managers can feel hopeless or directionless, and it implies the organization does not focus on or recognize the contributions of women.

What The Gap Means for Businesses

It is easy to dismiss gender disparity as a women’s issue or a symptom of being political; ly correct. However, the issues limiting women have a significant impact on bottom lines. By not promoting women, skilled talent capable of making substantial contributions is overlooked. They have outstanding credentials, proven track records and connections in the business world and have a lot to bring to the table.

Companies that do have representation from female leaders outperform companies without female directors, as shown in an analysis of Fortune 500 companies. Eliminating barriers to promotions not only raises women’s earnings but also increases business productivity by connecting skilled employees of all genders to appropriate roles.

What Can Women Do to Empower Themselves?

Women workers can empower themselves and overcome gender biases in several ways, including:

  • Find a mentor: A mentor, either male or female, can be a huge help for any professional woman. A formal mentoring arrangement can expand your professional network, give trusted guidance and expertise and establish your credibility. Having someone in your corner can help you navigate difficult situations and steer you in the right direction.
  • Be your own advocate: You will never get a raise or promotion without asking for it; they will not fall in your lap. If there’s a plum assignment that would raise your profile available, sit down with your boss and go over your rationale on why it is the perfect project for you and how you can deliver results ahead of the deadline. After delivering exemplary results or beating projections, request a meeting to discuss an increase in pay. Regularly touting your accomplishments and the value you bring to the company will help overcome gender bias and put the focus back on your work.
  • Build your executive presence: Executive presence is the “it” factor associated with senior leadership. If you do not look and sound like an executive, you’ll never become one. You can improve your presence and display gravitas by dressing conservatively and professionally. How you speak is also essential; many women qualify their statements, such as “I do not know if this will work, but maybe we could try…” Such statements weaken your position and how people perceive you. Stand firm in your beliefs and present them in as straightforward as possible. Volunteering for high profile assignments, such as large presentations on behalf of the company or leading a project in the community, can help shape your image as a seasoned executive.

While progress has been made, women still face an uphill battle, regularly getting passed over for promotions and earning less than men for the same jobs. The usual answers do not get to the real truth: there is a genuine and definitive bias against women in the workplace that keeps them from reaching their full potential. By both men and women understanding these issues, the problem can slowly be fixed, improving career parity and business success.

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