Even though it's 2017 and much progress has been made, it's no secret that professional women are still at a disadvantage in the workplace.

As countless studies have documented, the farther up the corporate ladder one goes, the fewer women you'll see. Women are underrepresented at all levels of business, from first-level managers to CEOs.

The same is true of entrepreneurs - just 40% of all American entrepreneurs are women, according to the 2016 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity.

While progress has certainly been made over the last several decades and even over the past few years, the glass ceiling is still stubbornly holding strong.

This is why networking, an important component of any professional's career, is even more important when it comes to women - whether they want to climb the ladder to the C-suite or start their own business.

Here are just a few of the reasons.

Women begin to fall behind from the earliest years of their careers. Networking can help stop this progression.

According to the recently released Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Co. and the Lean In Foundation, women start losing ground almost immediately upon entering the workplace. In entry-level positions, the ratio of men to women is 54% to 46%.

Just one step up the ladder, at the manager level, the percentage of women falls to 37%.

This is an institutional issue, one that's ingrained in our broader workplace culture. But networking is one step that we, as professional women, can ourselves take to challenge and change this reality.

By forcing ourselves to make connections with others in our company, especially at higher levels, we improve our chances of being the exception, rather than the rule.

Let's be honest: Statistically, our male colleagues are more likely to be promoted than we are. Networking with colleagues and superiors is something we've got to do more of if we want to attempt to level the playing field.

Women naturally tend to have fewer connections with work colleagues than men, and we're less confident about utilizing the ones we do have.

Even though women are generally strong collaborators and communicators, we tend to have fewer business-related connections than men do. In addition, our social connections tend to be divided into personal and work, with less overlap than most of our male colleagues.

This presents some challenges when it comes to building our careers or building our businesses. As research has shown, professional men are more likely to be comfortable asking someone in their business network for a favor or for advice - even if that connection is relatively weak. Women are often more hesitant to ask a connection for anything, often out of the fear of being perceived as opportunistic, or even weak.

If we're going to achieve equality in the workplace, we've got to push past these fears and learn to ask for the things we want. We need to put some time into building these work relationships, just like we do all the other relationships in our lives.

As professional women, we have a responsibility to the younger generations of women who are struggling with the same issues we are. We must pay it forward.

I know from experience how energizing it can be to have another woman whom you admire offer you guidance and support in your business endeavors. In fact, I've made it part of my mission to do the same for young women I meet who are starting out in their careers.

Of course, I'm hardly alone. Ask any successful professional, male or female, how they got to where they are, and chances are they had someone - or several someones - helping them along the way.

As professional women, we have so much to give to younger women who are just beginning their careers. Networking with them is just as important as networking with those who are in positions similar to our own, or positions we aspire to.

If we had a strong mentor who helped us achieve success, then we can honor that person by sharing our own gifts, talents, and experience with another. If we attained our position with little more than our wits and lots of hard work, then we can help make another woman's path a bit easier.

Networking is key to achieving our professional goals, and it's even more vital for ambitious women. For more on networking, read "3 Ways to Transform Online Connections into Meaningful Professional Relationships."