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Women outpace men in earning advanced degrees and constitute a significant portion of the workforce, so the persistence of the limited progression to the C-suite and gender wage gap raises unsettling questions. Women hold only 8.6% of the CEO roles in the S&P 500 and only 10.6% of the Fortune 500.  Further, Pew recently reported that mid-career women aged 35 to 54 earn only 83% of their male counterparts in comparable jobs, a statistic that has stagnated over the past two decades.

Motherhood is often a scapegoat for the increase in the wage gap and the “broken rung,” the idea that women encounter barriers to or miss entirely opportunities to start climbing the corporate ladder, but the data does not support this theory. When controlling for educational levels, there is little difference in the wages of women with and without children, prompting us to explore the real culprit behind this growing gender disparity.

While societal and cultural norms undoubtedly contribute to wage injustice, our qualitative research revealed a controllable factor that significantly impacts mid-career gender inequity: the lack of professional intentionality. For many women, mid-career can feel like an endless merry-go-round — a ride that starts with enthusiasm and promise but leaves them stuck on the same pony while their male counterparts sprint ahead on real horses. To change this, we encourage women to intentionally look up, look forward, and start working on the future today.

Our qualitative research, drawing insights from 30 women with successful careers spanning diverse demographics and industries, highlighted two critical factors perpetuating this phenomenon. Firstly, societal and corporate cultures often encourage women to put their heads down and work hard with the promise that good things will eventually happen. Over-indexing on performance, women trust success will find them once they reach some elusive level of mastery.

Secondly, women seem hardwired to put others first, which can result in them coming in last. The juggling act of caring for others leaves little time for unapologetic, guilt-free investments in their own futures. According to Fast Company, 78% of mothers feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids. At the same time, 42% of women reported feeling guilty about leaving work early for family obligations. Further, a 2020 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP reported that “more than one in five Americans are caring for an aging parent, 61% of whom are women,” the majority of whom work outside the home.

The mid-career women we interviewed candidly admitted to neglecting intentional planning for and investment in their professional futures. Many credited chance, luck, and being in the right place at the right time for their achievements while acknowledging that greater purposefulness could have propelled them further, faster. They also recognized that making themselves a priority, setting healthy boundaries and asking for help is not selfish — it is self-actualizing.

Intentionality alone cannot eradicate systemic issues like patriarchal cultures, ageism, and discrimination — often cited as the root cause of gender wage disparities. Still, creating and enforcing boundaries to prioritize personal and professional development does offer a mitigating variable by empowering self-agency. It is time for women to break free from the monotonous cycle, lift their heads and deliberately work towards their futures. Waiting for the perfect alignment of circumstances is futile. The time to act is now.

To escape the broken rung and move toward increased C-suite representation and pay equity, mid-career women must identify a new ride, chart their path, build skills, vocalize their aspirations, advocate for themselves, and make strategic moves. The key lies in looking forward toward professional goals with the intention to shape what can be controlled today toward that desired future while acknowledging that the perfect moment may never arrive, but the power to effect change begins within.

Kimberly K. Rath, MBA, a Pepperdine Graziadio Business School alumnus, and Cynthia Bentzen-Mercer, PhD, are coauthors of “Now, Near, Next: A Practical Guide for Mid-Career Women” and featured speakers at the Ignite Your Next Career Move event at Graziadio honoring International Women’s Day.

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