How the Opportunity Gap Holds Business Women Back

Woman executive in a group of men

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In spite of the attention paid to equality in the workplace, women are still at a substantial disadvantage compared to their male counterparts when it comes to salary and opportunity for advancement. Given the necessary contribution of women to the labor force and the economy, closing the opportunity gap should be a high priority for businesses and government.

What Is the Opportunity Gap?

The opportunity gap describes the situation where too many women in business remain in entry levels positions and don’t advance into leadership roles. For example, while women accounted for 57 percent of all college degrees and 47 percent of all business degrees in the United States in 2015:

  • Only 24 (4.8 percent) of the most profitable companies in the U.S. (Fortune 500) had a female CEO in 2018. The number actually fell from an all-time high of 32 in 2017.
  • According to a previously reported analysis by Equilar and CNBC, a dozen of the largest U.S. companies on the Fortune 500 do not have a single female director on their board
  • According to a 2018 study by Equilar, just 17.7 percent of board members of companies on the Russell 3000 Index (the 3000 largest publicly traded companies in the U.S.) were female. However, the report does state that the percentage is increasing — more than a third of new board members in 2018 were women.

Causes of the Opportunity Gap

Women face a variety of barriers in advancing to leadership roles, including:

  • Shortages of qualified female candidates - Women are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and consequently less represented in senior management and the boards of such companies.
  • Biases within organizations - Many male-dominated businesses still exhibit biases against women.
  • Conflicting familial obligations - Women who wish to raise a family may be forced to interrupt their careers to have and raise children.
  • Cultural biases - Some cultures still view women's "proper place" as the traditional role of the stay-at-home housewife and mother.

How Can We Combat the Opportunity Gap?

Unfortunately, the countries that have had the most success in increasing female representation on the boards of corporations are those that have implemented mandatory quotas. For example, the European Commission (the legislative body of the European Union), is pushing for a 40 percent quota for women on corporate boards.

Other countries have non-binding targets for the percentage of female board members. The U.K., for instance, has a target of 25 percent women on the boards of the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 companies.

On August 30th of 2018, California became the first state in the nation to vote in favor of a bill mandating that publicly traded companies based in California have at least one woman on their boards by 2019 and as many as three women by 2021, depending on the size of the company.

Legislating quotas is highly controversial and has been strongly opposed by some business leaders, primarily based on the notion that there are not enough qualified female candidates to fill corporate board positions. To combat this, some organizations utilize sponsorship and mentoring programs for qualified women to give them the skills and experience necessary to become board members.

What Can Women Do to Take Charge of Advancing Their Careers?

Don't Be Afraid to Ask for a Raise or Promotion

No matter how competent you are and how hard you work, automatic promotions and pay raises are not a given in the business world — few bosses will pay employees more than they are willing to ask for. Some studies have shown that women are more uncomfortable than men when it comes to negotiating compensation. For example, a study conducted by staffing firm Robert Half of more than 2,700 workers across 27 major U.S. cities found that 46 percent of men tried to negotiate higher pay in their last job offer compared to only 34 percent of women. Whether due to lower levels of self-confidence, higher levels of passivity, or other factors, too many women undervalue what they have to offer.

Promote Your Abilities and Accomplishments Whenever Possible

Many people are uncomfortable with the notion of promoting themselves, perhaps equating it with conceit. Unfortunately, self-promotion is a necessary part of career advancement; you need to be able to make your bosses aware of your abilities and your accomplishments. Sending a note to your boss that you finished the latest project on time and on a budget, for instance, and complimenting those on your team who assisted you is a great way to raise your profile with management.

Don't Be Afraid to Rock the Boat

Employees are often afraid to suggest changes in the workplace or to push back when treated unfairly or disrespectfully. Good bosses welcome ideas for improving productivity or the working environment, depending on how the suggestions are put forth. Becoming known as someone who can express candid, well thought out opinions and suggestions in a non-confrontational manner can be an effective way to increase your stature within an organization.

Consider Hiring a Career Coach or Mentor

If your career is stagnating and you are unhappy with your current situation it may be time to consider getting assistance from a career coach. A good career coach can help you get back on track and take steps to get that advancement and/or pay raise you deserve or alternatively get your career moving in a more suitable direction.