It’s a question that surfaces repeatedly in business circles: Why aren’t more women leading companies and other organizations?

As it turns out, a number of prominent leaders in this area are women and they represent a variety of sectors.

Recently, several of them shared their thoughts with Northwoods Commerce about the importance of increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles. They include Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce; Liza Edinger, president and CEO of Ripco Credit Union; Kelli Jacobi, superintendent of schools for the School District of Rhinelander; Laurie Schlitt, interim CEO for the YMCA of the Northwoods; and Deahn Donner Wright, landscape ecologist scientist and project leader of the Institute for Applied Ecosystem Studies, Northern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service in Rhinelander.

Is there still a glass ceiling?

Nationally, the shortage of women at the highest levels is a reality. According to a survey by Catalyst, an organization that focuses on creating inclusive work places, at the end of 2013 there was very little change in the number of women holding board seats in Fortune 500 companies: 16.9 percent, compared to 16.6 percent in 2012. Less than one-fifth of companies had 25 percent or more female directors in both 2012 and 2013. Also in both 2012 and 2013, less than 25 percent of companies had three or more female directors serving together. Closer to home, the Wisconsin Women’s Council reports that women occupy about 14 percent of seats on the boards of directors for Wisconsin’s 50 largest public companies.

Much has been written about the relative scarcity of female leaders in general, and the numerous books and articles offer up a litany of reasons for that shortage. Some cite a lack of effort on the part of companies to groom promising female employees for top level positions; others believe that in many organizations, women’s values and perspectives are unappreciated; still others cite the obligations that come with child-rearing, a scarcity of mentors, unequal pay, self-imposed barriers and conflicts between children’s school and women’s work schedules.

It’s worth noting that while most of the women interviewed for this article feel that, in general, obstacles to leadership roles for women do exist, they don’t feel they encountered these obstacles in their own career paths. These women also believe individual perspective plays a crucial role in career advancement.

“Barriers are visible for those who let them be seen,” Schlitt says. “I would call them challenges or obstacles that can be overcome.”

Sometimes, for various reasons, women impose their own barriers, as when Donner Wright decided to wait until her children were older before seeking a more time-consuming leadership position. In some cases, she points out, there may also be financial reasons for not taking on a higher level job.

“For external barriers, the disparity in pay between males and females across almost all disciplines and in leadership positions tells me there are still barriers; there is still the glass ceiling,” she says. “Women may be unwilling to take on leadership positions if they are not going to get paid on an equal basis as a man in the same position. The trade-off of the extra time for less money isn’t worth it. I think that until pay disparity is reduced, women may continue to not take key leadership positions.”

Like Donner Wright, Edinger also brings up the issue of disparity in pay when she cites a recent article about a national study that revealed women earn less money on average than men who are in comparable jobs – even if the women are outperforming their male counterparts. “From what I can gather,” Edinger says, “it seems that there exists a subtle gender bias that persists in many organizations.”

Even in the 21st century, some feel women still have to work harder to prove themselves. “I do feel that men are sometimes given credibility without having to show or prove they deserve it,” Baltus says. “A woman may have to go the extra mile to demonstrate her competence prior to receiving the respect, credibility or recognition she deserves.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“Leadership, especially in the field of education, is so difficult these days. I can’t say that it was any more difficult for me than it has been for my male counterparts,” Jacobi says. “I think we all have to continuously prove we are capable.”

“When I was beginning in this field right out of college, I had a male supervisor tell me that I must work harder to prove myself because I’m a woman,” Donner Wright recalls. “But through the years and now, I do not feel I have to work harder than my male peers, because they are working just as hard to get limited positions.

“Working hard may not be the right description,” she continues. “I think the expectations placed on women may be more the issue. There is an expectation that females are better multitaskers, organizers or won’t say as much, so we’re expected to take on more or do certain jobs in some ways. There continues to be an expectation that we’ll do the ‘traditional’ roles society sees of women in addition to our regular duties.”

Winning in a no-win situation

According to numerous articles, a general perception remains to this day that a woman who acts “feminine” (that is, passive, soft-spoken, etc.) isn’t seen as a leader. If, however, a woman acts the way a man might act in a similar business situation – assertive, decisive or aggressive – then she risks being perceived as “unfeminine.” Many women have adapted to this catch-22 situation by cultivating greater interpersonal skills. As a result, they emerge as excellent leaders.

“Girls are often taught not to make waves, not to be too bold or aggressive,” Jacobi says. “So I have learned to use diplomacy and communication skills to facilitate change instead of a more forceful approach.”

Whether women have inherent traits that make them better suited for leadership positions appears to be up for debate.

“Attributes are unique to each person, not necessarily gender,” Schlitt says, adding that an individual’s strengths and weaknesses determine success or failure when it comes to leadership.

Others, however, think differently.

“I believe females, for the most part, bring a lot of emotion and compassion to the table,” Edinger says. “When these qualities are displayed in a constructive and balanced way, it can energize and touch the core of an employee’s very being.”

“I think many women have the ability to quickly assess a group or situation and organize or prioritize needs,” Baltus says. “Any woman with children does this several times every day. I believe we also have more of a desire at times to gain consensus and common ground when working with a diverse group of people.”

Getting other women on board

In so much that is written about the shortage of female leaders, mentoring is repeatedly noted as a way to encourage younger women to reach higher.

Jacobi recalls the importance of a mentor in her career. “I had a great principal when I was teaching at West School who fostered my leadership skills and encouraged me to take on leadership roles,” she says. “Deb Harris was a great role model for me. I think many girls and young women would benefit from having a role model in their lives.”

“There is a belief that women or young girls are not interested, or do not excel, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), which is why there are not a lot of females represented,” Donner Wright says. But, she notes, in parts of the country where women hold leadership positions in these STEM fields, more females do go into these fields. “The key is visibility of these females to our young girls,” she says. “By showing them that there are women doing something that they like – for instance, math – they can begin seeing themselves doing it. They start to see that there are career options for them.”

Words of wisdom

Although they come from varied backgrounds and have different occupations, these women have much in common: they’re all willing to work hard and they refuse to let themselves be defined by others’ expectations. They also share a sense of personal responsibility for the paths they have taken.

“Live the part of being a leader every day,” Edinger says. “Go about your life and dealings with people in a manner that would inspire and draw people to you. One doesn’t have to be in an ‘official’ leadership position to be a great leader. There are numerous opportunities to shine as a leader in any job capacity and be noticed in a positive way.”

These women and, it seems reasonable to assume, many others who are leading their organizations, also share the belief that knowledge of and confidence in one’s self, humility, persistence and a sense of personal responsibility are all qualities necessary to take on positions at the highest levels.

“Assess yourself. Listen,” Schlitt advises. “Look at barriers as challenges and how to conquer them. Believe in yourself and have the understanding that you do not know it all. Surround yourself with talent and mentors. You are only as good as your team; arrogance and stubbornness will cloud your forward progress.”

“Women who aspire to leadership roles need to always do their homework and be prepared,” Baltus says. “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of these tasks to your overall success. If you understand your role and what your purpose is, you will be in a far better position to take on whatever lands at your feet. It’s all about preparation meeting opportunity.”