There has always been a gap between men and women in business. Research by economists at Cornell University shows that 91 percent of the gap can be explained by so-called “human capital” factors such as part-time work, choice of occupation/industry, and experience. However, nearly 10 percent can’t be explained by these factors. In addition, a recent McKinsey study found that while 53 percent of women make it to middle management, only 24 percent make it to the senior vice president level and even fewer (19 percent) gain entry to the C-suite. How can we tackle this problem?
As a student, don’t be afraid to embrace the “tough” subjects. While female enrollment outnumbers male enrollment in colleges and universities, women still tend to be underrepresented in the hard sciences, engineering and mathematics. A strong grounding in math isn’t critical to climbing the corporate ladder, but it certainly can help when it comes to navigating the multiple challenges of running a business—whether in operations, marketing, technology, or product development.

Sit up, stand up, and speak up. Women are often afraid to advocate for themselves and have a harder time finding their voice and being noticed in large groups. It’s important to think of the key points you want to make in advance and find the moment to make them. Develop a plan for where you want to go, the experiences you will need to get there, and the relationships you will need to build. Then execute. Unfortunately, doing a good job and waiting for others to recognize you doesn’t often work. You need to get on the radar screen. And don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you switch jobs and don’t aggressively negotiate your pay on your way in, it will be hard to close the gap with a man who does do this.

Find sponsors. Anyone who gets to the top has people who helped them get there. Mentors are important, but mentors are people who simply give advice. Sponsors use their political capital to help their protégés advance by helping them build the right connections. Sponsors help protégés because protégés do good work and make their sponsors successful. To climb the ladder, women need to cultivate these relationships.

Build a supportive network. This final step is one that is the hardest nut to crack—balancing personal and professional demands. Help can come from a supportive partner and family (my mother has been invaluable), and from an employer. Back-up childcare services, a culture that understands that some of the work will get done after the kids go to sleep, and role-modeling from senior executives are all important in helping women succeed in managing it all.