Margery Kraus is a rarity, and it frustrates her. As founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide, a $120 million, 650-plus-employee consulting company based in Washington, D.C., she has made it to the top of the corporate heap at a time when female CEOs remain a distinct minority. She's eager to help other women advance, but too often, she says, they don't help themselves. "I've been in more than one situation," she says, "where I offer a man and a woman the same job--a promotion--and the woman's response is 'You know, I've never done that before and I don't know if I'm totally qualified,' while the man says, 'That's great. I'm ready to go.' "

The big question, both for women looking to climb the ranks and for executives looking to fill senior positions, is whether a woman who responds as Kraus describes is woefully underconfident or refreshingly--and usefully--realistic.

Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says there's a Catch-22 at work. Conspicuous self-confidence "helps you land the jobs that lead to the top but then works against you once you're the leader." There's plenty of research, he says, that shows that the ability to admit your approach may not be the best, and your willingness to seek out other viewpoints, are far better traits for a leader to have than overconfidence. "Enron, WorldCom, and other companies blew up because they didn't have any of that," he says.

No one knows women's leadership capacities better than a female entrepreneur such as Kraus, but even she finds herself wishing that women were more comfortable advocating for themselves. "The person who's hiring wants the candidate to express confidence that they can do the job," she says. Kraus, who is board chair for the Women Presidents' Organization and a member of the C200, a global organization of women entrepreneurs, knows a lot about what it takes for women to succeed at the highest levels. "Other things being equal, verbal confidence can tip the scales," she says.

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Your company can contribute to the scale-tipping through a deep review of operations, argues Deborah Kolb, professor emerita at Simmons College School of Management. Longstanding, often unexamined practices that she labels "second-generation gender bias" have an insidious impact on how business leaders evaluate women candidates. The solution, she argues, is not to require that women job applicants learn to strut like men but for employers to identify and rectify the often hidden ways their hiring and advancement can inadvertently favor men.

As one example, she points to how most job descriptions are written. Hiring managers will typically describe an ideal candidate, asking for a litany of qualifications and experience that no job seeker is likely to have. Men tend, she says, to be undaunted by the gap between what's on their résumés and what's being asked for, and will make the strongest possible case for themselves. Women are more likely to take the job description at face value and not apply if they feel they aren't a good on-paper fit. Write more realistic descriptions and more women are likely to apply.

"Even employers who think of themselves as very employee-friendly," Kolb says, "may not realize the implications of their policies. Consider Silicon Valley companies, which offer all kinds of on-site perks--many of which are designed to make it easier for you to work 24/7. But what if you have a family? More amenities in the office doesn't address that issue."

Kolb is on a mission to educate everyone about these subtle barriers, which she believes both aspiring women and the companies they work for need to tackle more overtly. "When women realize these biases are real, even if unintentional," she says, "they feel empowered rather than victimized, because now they see specific ways they can 'lean in.' "

For example, women can be more aware of opportunities to ask for work arrangements that allow them to perform at their highest level while also accommodating their nonwork responsibilities. Harking back to that gap between what a job requires and how it might be described, they can advocate for themselves more effectively by keeping the conversation focused on why their qualifications map well to the most critical aspects of a position, and not be dissuaded by a lack of nice-to-haves.

Once hired, she adds, women can benefit from mentoring programs and should seek out sponsors, but neither they nor their employers should assume that's enough. What really helps is to understand that becoming a leader is a process: Women need opportunities to show themselves as leaders and to win support when they do. The more often that happens, the more confident women become; leadership becomes baked into their identity, which influences how they perceive themselves--and how everyone else perceives them as well.

Confidence and invisible biases notwithstanding, Finkelstein believes the outlook is improving. He offers two pieces of evidence. Exhibit A is mathematical: Women now outnumber men in terms of undergraduate enrollment and performance, which is boosting the number of women attending top-tier business schools. That will increase the odds that more women will land top management roles.

Given that an M.B.A. isn't a sure ticket to the executive suite, however, his Exhibit B may be more compelling: The fact that women have recently become CEOs at such male-dominated businesses as General Motors, General Dynamics, and several Silicon Valley companies will encourage more women to reach for the brass ring--and make men more accepting of the idea. From the corporate boardroom to your own business, leading by example works.