Is Success a Choice for Women in Business?

08/21/2011 11:33 EDT | Updated 10/21/2011 05:12 EDT

I read an interesting blog the other day entitled "Why Women Should Earn Less" by Margaret Bogenrief. The author shared her frustrations with all the complaints she heard from women who claim "they do not get their fair shake" or "they are less powerful." Her conclusion: stop underperforming, make better choices, and in particular stop blaming it all on the men.

With 30 years of women's movements, initiatives and corporate diversity programs under our collective belt, are we simply spinning our wheels? Is it all just a "cottage industry [that] has emerged making girls feel better about underperforming" as Bogenrief claims?

I think it is about time to stop talking about "girls" and "women" as if they are all the same. A bit more segmentation of these three billion female inhabitants on earth might allow for better discussion. Clearly, the arguments are focused on the educated woman who was raised in a well-developed country and who has the skill set and the opportunity to work in high-powered positions -- or so called "Extreme Jobs," a phrase coined by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. We are dismissing in this debate the majority of women who stay in the workforce because they cannot afford not to work. We are also dismissing the group of women who will never get the opportunity to live out their ambitions, and there are plenty of reasons why that might happen.

So if we focus on the lucky ones, the well-educated woman working in a society where equal opportunities and rights are provided regardless of gender, where she can gain a position with plenty of career potential, what's going wrong? I can point to plenty of studies showing that women are just as motivated by money and recognition as men. If these women are not moving up into top positions, is it mainly because of their own choices? That would be a convenient answer.

In my mind, there are multiple forces at play. Overt discrimination has all but vanished and many companies have been working hard to create patches to plug the "leaky" talent pipeline, which seems to lose women at every transition level up. A recent J. Barsh and L. Yee report produced for the WSJ Executive Task Force for Women in the Economy 2011 surveyed 2,500 men and women and came to the conclusion that the answer is a bit more complex than simply assuming women choose to opt out. They identified structural barriers such as lack of role models, exclusion from informal networks where important connections are made (such as on the golf course), and missing sponsors within the companies who would help to open up opportunities for the women. That is, unfortunately, hardly news.

However, studies also indicate that women are looking (and staying) in jobs which allow them to achieve greater satisfaction across all parts of their lives, where they feel deeply connected and able to make a difference, and where they can work collaboratively with others.

One of the worst obstacles for women in business seems to be the mindset. We moved on from overt discrimination to carrying implicit biases and stereotypes. We hear assumptions about how women (and men) should behave ("women take care, men take charge"). We hear about their limitations, and we see double standards for male and female performance evaluations. Women become eroded by society telling them they "can't have it all" -- and they believe it.

This is where the women's initiatives and women-specific programs can make a big difference. They help women establish a new perspective on their careers, opportunities and choices. As long as men are still promoted on the basis of their potential, but women only receive promotions on the basis of their actual performance, we need women-specific women programs and initiatives to be in place.