The Surprising Reasons Working Women Are Held Back

Women continue to grope for work-life balance, but may be holding themselves back

May 31, 2014 at 12:27PM

New research from Bentley University on Millennial women in the workplace shows that while they are as capable as men at decision-making and tend to shine in areas like communicating with others, as well as being generally more organized and better prepared for entering the work force, women still lag behind men in key areas. When it comes to leadership, for example, or being perceived as able to succeed in business, men still hold the upper hand. 

Why do persons from all walks of life – including Millennial women – continue to believe that business success is only the province of men? Another segment of the survey sheds some light on this: When asked, 56% of women and 47% of men said that women could be more successful if they were encouraged to believe that doing so would not jeopardize their status as spouse or parent.

In other words, women need to be convinced that they can "have it all".

A matter of confidence
Certainly, many women seem obsessed with the idea of being perfect at work as well as on the home front, and are constantly seeking work-life balance. A major roadblock for women's business success, however, seems to be that they are often not assertive enough. Succinctly put, some lack confidence.

This is almost certainly socially imprinted, and not a function of being female. It does exist, however, and there has been much discussion dedicated to the subject. Still, it persists.

A recent article by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic tackles this very issue. In The Confidence Gap, the authors note that confidence is a huge indicator of success, and is at least as important as competence. They note in many lab studies, men overestimate their capabilities, while women denigrate theirs. When the tasks are evaluated, women and men generally perform just about equally. Similarly, women will apply for promotions only when they feel that they are 100% qualified; men will do so even when they consider themselves to possess only 60% of the necessary qualifications.

Women don't negotiate – but should
This explains another phenomenon, one that very likely explains at least some of the gender pay gap: women tend not to negotiate. In an interview with Bloomberg this spring, Sallie Krawcheck – who has held lofty positions at Citigroup and Bank of America – noted this discrepancy between the sexes.

She observed that women tend to take the money offered them – whether it happens to be a salary level or bonus amount – and do not actively negotiate a higher sum. They accept the amount offered, or refuse. They tend not to pursue improvements in their positions, such as a special project or similar career-boosting option, either.

This is not a new problem, by any means. A 2003 study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that starting salaries for male MBA graduates were 7.6% higher than those for women MBAs from the same school. Why? Because 93% of the women had accepted the pay package offered, without trying to negotiate a better deal. The men, on the other hand, were not so accepting – 57% asked for a higher salary.

This meekness comes through in testing, as well. When researchers told subjects that they would perform a task for which they would be paid between $3 and $10, the great majority of the men balked when offered the lowest amount. Most of the women simply accepted it.

Getting to balance
Besides becoming more assertive and outspoken, how do women go about attaining that work-life balance thing? Fortune 500 executive Teresa Taylor has some advice, and it's very good: Give equal weight to your home and work life, and do the very best you can at each one. In other words, treat each as if they are equally important – because they are.

She makes two very important points, though. One is that your home life is your anchor, so make it your priority. Not to the point of turning down promotions, of course – but know that a happy home life will only make you more successful in your work life.

The other point is women should sponsor other women. This is echoed by Krawcheck, who noted that having a sponsor at work – someone who would support her position in meetings with management – was crucial to her success.

I believe it is up to women to change not only the general perceptions of females in the workplace, but their views of themselves. In my opinion, only then will the gender pay gap dissipate, and a true balance of work and home be achieved.

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Amanda Alix has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Citigroup. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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