More U.S. women are earning college degrees than men, yet women lag behind them in attaining the highest ranks in corporate and public leadership.

Why is that? First, women don’t self-promote. They often think that if they put their heads down and work hard, they’ll be recognized. But if they don’t assertively ask for things, they may still advance but will move forward much more slowly.

At the heart of this behavior is that women fear negative perception. It can be difficult to walk the line—to be more aggressive, savvy, and assertive, but not to be offensive. To get to the higher levels, it’s essential to have executive and boardroom presence, as well as the perceived ability to sell more work. All require assertiveness.
To break through this fear, women often have to recognize their conditioning. Women wait for an invitation. This translates to a workplace where women are less likely to ask for a plum assignment, a promotion, or mentoring.
That’s why it’s so helpful to have male mentors—they push you to be more assertive. When I say, “It feels pushy,” they say, “Are you kidding? That’s how we do it!”

And many women lack mentoring—from both men and other women. To be successful, women must ask for help, feedback, and career counseling. You need to have several mentors. And you need to ask honest and direct questions and be ready to hear the answers.

Women also tend to skip the “boys’ club” activities where informal mentoring takes place. These include golfing, drinks after work, and so on—and they’re the places where a lot of work gets done and advice is dispensed.
They have to make the time for it, which is difficult when women are juggling home and work. As women begin to have families, they’re often focused on trying to manage busy lives and they don’t always think about their long-term career outlook. And this can lead to women stalling in the ranks or leaving the workforce.

Do all you can to equip yourself to be a leader. Be observant of the organizational culture and the protocols. Get coaches, mentors and sponsors—and do it early, often, and formally.