In 2017 there are only 17% of startups with a female founder. According to an American Express Open study, the number of women-owned businesses in the United States outpaced the growth of businesses in general by one and a half times between 1997 and 2014. Still, women-owned businesses account for only 30% of businesses overall.

Women have made significant progress as business owners, but there is still a major disparity between the sexes in the workplace, and it becomes even more exaggerated within nonwhite ethnicities. What is holding women back and what can we do to level the playing field?

Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In in 2013, which earned both high praise and criticism. "The reason I wrote Lean In is I think people weren't actually noticing that we had stopped making progress. I gave a TED talk and said: "It turns out men still run the world." And the audience gasped as if that was news. I think we made so much progress for decades, starting in the 1960's and the 1970's on, that when really the progress stopped, it ground to a halt on leadership roles, on the pay gap, on the percentage of women who are running for office, we didn't exactly notice.

So I think making sure we are correctly looking at where we are. You know, we are 20% in the Congress. We have never had a woman president. We are 5% of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs. Paying attention to that is the first step and understanding that that's not OK," said Sandberg in a recent USA Today interview.

How Policy Changes Can Help

The United States is the only developed country with no paid maternity or parental leave. This, among several other factors, holds many women back from achieving leadership positions because of issues with work/family life balance. According to the 2016 Women in the Workplace study, "Only 40% of women are interested in becoming top executives, compared to 56% of men. Women and men worry equally about work-life balance and company politics.

However, women with and without children are more likely to say they don't want the pressure, and women who want a top job anticipate a steeper path than men who do." Paid family leave policies can help women achieve greater balance between their careers and their home lives.

The study also found that closing the gender pay gap is going to be a challenge, because women who negotiate face serious blowback that their male counterparts don't: "Women who negotiate for a promotion or compensation increase are 30% more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are "bossy," "too aggressive," or "intimidating.""

Policies like standard compensation packages or compensation transparency can help decrease the gender pay gap, giving women greater opportunities for career growth.

Positive Habits Can Help Women Overcome Obstacles

Even in a skewed society, many women still make it to the top through perseverance. Oprah Winfrey overcame an impoverished and difficult childhood to become one of the wealthiest women in America by believing that failure is just life pushing you in a different direction. J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, but she persevered through rejection by 12 different publishers before she finally sold her manuscript.

Lucille Ball struggled to be taken seriously as an actor and businesswoman until the runaway success of "I Love Lucy," which led to her becoming the first woman to run a major television studio and eventually her receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

People are 33% more likely to reach their goals if they write them down:

  • Dolly Parton advocates for writing down your goals and then going about life as though you have already achieved them
  • Sheryl Sandberg writes her calendars and to-do lists by hand because she believes this is more effective than keeping digital ones
  • Simone Biles keeps her goals for the next twelve months written down in a notebook

Taking time to rest and refresh is also important. As the saying goes, you can't pour from an empty vessel. Reading, meditating, and exercising can keep you centered and on the right track. Achieving work/life balance is also important to everyone, but most especially to mothers, who have a lot more on their plates than the average person.

Michelle Obama does allow motherhood to define her despite her many other accomplishments because she considers it her most cherished role. Learning to balance motherhood and work is crucial to happiness in both.

Learn more about the habits of highly successful women from this infographic from Business Student. How can policy changes that support women and mothers help level the professional playing field?