Women today are making strides in the business world at an unprecedented level. Women are also pursuing higher education in record numbers. In fact, women now hold more bachelors and graduate degrees than men do. So, in 2012 we should expect men and women to be equal in the business world. Are women managing to successfully compete in what is still "a man's world?"

SEE: 5 Richest Women In The U.S.

Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and one of the most influential women in media, said of women and business, "Women still have an uneasy relationship with power and the traits necessary to be a leader. There is this internalized fear that if we are really powerful, we are going to be considered ruthless or pushy or strident – all those epithets that strike right at our femininity. We are still working at trying to overcome the fear that power and womanliness are mutually exclusive."

Still a Pay Gap
It is almost 50 years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but there is still a real discrepancy in pay between men and women - highlighting that women are not on an even footing yet. On equal pay, earlier this year an article written by Forbes announced that women would have to work 108 days extra to earn what men had earned in the previous year. In the U.S., full-time women employees are paid just 77 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts earn.

Women Executive Leadership founder Cindy Kusher suggested that women may not be asking for raises when they should. "Men are bold in asking for increases, and women aren't," she said.

But Catalyst, a non-profit that works to expand opportunities for women, suggests that it is more complex than this. The disparity starts early, Catalyst said. "Women graduating business school are placed in lower positions and, on average, paid $4,600 a year less in their first jobs than men. "By mid-career, they're making $31,000 less than men," said Serena Fong, spokeswoman for Catalyst.

Does Family Life Hold Women Back?
Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, economists from Harvard University, tracked the career path of nearly 3,000 MBA graduates from the University of Chicago over 15 years. Their research concluded that women's pay deficits were almost entirely because they interrupted their careers more often and tended to work fewer hours. So even today, motherhood is holding women back in their careers.

The only way this will change in the future is if employers are more willing to allow women the opportunity to balance their careers with their family duties. This might mean flexible working hours, working from home and more parental leave. One of the ways this change could occur is if more women who had been through motherhood were on the boards of the firms and influencing policy. While 40% of large companies worldwide still have no women on their boards, it is clear that we have a long way to go to see true equality for women in the workplace.

SEE: Challenges Female-Owned Companies Face

Female Entrepreneurs
Perhaps then it is no wonder that women are starting their own businesses at 1.5 times the national average. That's a 20% increase over the last 10 years. Bright intelligent and capable women, who perhaps cannot find the flexibility they require in the traditional corporate environment, are taking matters into their own hands and becoming their own bosses.

Owning a business offers infinite flexibility. If you need to work around family life you are able to do so. Until we see a greater degree of compromise in corporate America, it seems likely that this trend of female entrepreneurship will continue.

Jobs Where Women Excel
There are some professions that are more welcoming than others to women. The Harvard research found the fields of veterinary medicine and pharmaceuticals were particularly welcoming to females. In these industries, changes such as business consolidation and technological progress have allowed women to take flexible and predictable schedules without the drop in pay you witness in other sectors. For instance, among pharmacists, there is no unexplained gender pay gap, Goldin said.

The Bottom Line
Women should know their value, negotiate their pay and speak up. It is the responsibility of everyone to work towards equality for women in the workplace. Half a century after it became illegal in America to pay a woman less than a man for the same job, the weekly wage of a woman is still almost 18% less than that of the typical working man.

SEE: Female CEOs Who Climbed The Corporate Ladder

Photo Courtesy of Thinkstock

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