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Why smart women still don't make it up the career ladder

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There are fewer men in mortarboards these days, no doubt about it. According to census data released last month, American women surpassed men in both undergraduate and graduate degrees for the first time in history.

But before we declare this the happy ending of a feminist fairytale, we must look at the more sinister afterword. Between graduation stages and bonafide success in any number of fields, women simply disappear.

While nearly half of law schools grads are women, only about 16 percent of equity partners at the top 200 largest law firms are. Nearly one-third of MBAs are earned by women today, but corporate boards of Fortune 100 companies are still comprised of just 15 percent women. About half of those earning MFAs are women, and yet about 23 percent of solo shows in New York galleries feature work done by women.

So what gives?

What shuts women out?

In part, fields like these and so many others, are still clinging to the last vestiges of old-fashioned patriarchy – job opportunities doled out over beers with buddies, unexamined misogyny in hiring and promotion practices, and blind eyes turned left and right to sexual harassment. Though women have crowded out the guys in classrooms around the country, they still find themselves to be the outsiders in science labs, corporate firms, and Chelsea galleries.

Many studies confirm that until a minority group constitutes a critical mass – usually placed at 30 percent – it is in danger of conforming to the dominant culture (i.e. all those terrible pantsuits and shoulder pads in the 80’s), getting burned out by the heavyweight of tokenization (as if one woman on the team could accurately represent one-half of the human population), or dropping out altogether.

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Every one of these fields where women are poorly represented has “pipeline issues” – places where the flow of smart, capable women gets diverted because of poor infrastructure, extraneous red tape, and a dearth of mentoring opportunities. Take architecture as an example. Women make up about 40 percent of graduates in the field, but thanks to the insanely lengthy and exploitative licensure process, they are only about 10 percent of the 110,000 registered architects in the United States.

Sometimes, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett and others have argued, women lose their way in the treacherous maternal journey of “on-ramping” and “off-ramping” (off-roading seems more accurate a metaphor in these tough economic times). But it’s not adequate, or even accurate, to blame women’s stubborn insistence on mothering for their mysterious disappearance from these male-dominated fields. Is it so much to ask that we create work cultures that allow women (and men, for that matter) to work and perpetuate the human race without losing their minds?

Women aren't socialized to own their strengths

But it’s not just work/life policies and crusty old office environments that are cramping women’s career styles. It’s unfashionable to admit this, but the truth is that women still have a confidence problem. As Mary Pipher first argued in her bestselling 1995 book, “Reviving Ophelia,” when girls turn 13, societal and familial forces compel too many of them to exchange their healthy egos for a whole world of hurt and humility.

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The reasons for this shift are as layered and interrelated. In part, girls observe that women who adhere to stereotypically feminine traits – humility and self-sacrifice chief among them – seem to avoid the blinding spotlight and, thus, all the alienation that can comes from being an outspoken, self-possessed woman (see Hillary Rodham Clinton).

On the other hand, and perhaps in an effort to avoid this kind of alienation, girls and women tend to explain their own success in far less individualistic ways than do boys and men. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, giving the commencement address at Barnard College last week, touched on this: “Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, ‘I got lucky. All of these great people helped me. I worked really hard.’ Ask a man and he’ll say or think, ‘What a dumb question. I’m awesome.’”

Tears instead of negotiating

As an advisory board member of The Op-Ed Project, an organization that aims to close the gender gap within public debate, I have seen roomfuls of highly educated and experienced women downplay their own credentials. I will never forget when one woman suggested that she had some knowledge of global development, but only after much prodding and poking admitted that she had a degree from Harvard, was the author of a critically-acclaimed book, and had led a highly successful grassroots movement for women’s rights in Nairobi.

Women don’t just play small when asked to own their expertise; some cry, some refuse to speak, some ask to leave the room.

It’s not only owning our expertise that we cower from, it’s also negotiating on our own behalf. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, co-authors of “Women Don’t Ask,” have studied this phenomenon extensively and concluded that “men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do.”

Our responsibility to change culture, behaviors

If you know a visionary woman marching across a graduation stage this spring, you know a woman at serious risk of losing her hard-earned dream, whether she holds an M.B.A, a J.D., or an M.Arch.

All of us have a responsibility – men and women – to transform the American workplace so that it reflects the reality of working parents’ lives, and socialize girls and women to proudly own their expertise in public and negotiate as fiercely as do their male peers.

We have a moral obligation to mainstream what is best about stereotypically feminine behaviors – accountability, cooperation, humility – to bust the myth of rogue success, while also creating a world where women can claim their successes without being socially alienated. Otherwise, we’re celebrating women’s progress prematurely.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," and coeditor of the anthology "Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists." She is an editor at feministing.com and senior correspondent at The American Prospect.

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