A new conversation about women, business and leadership is gaining momentum. From CEOs working to create a more diverse leadership pipeline, to Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in,” to researchers providing more evidence-based knowledge about how to tackle gender differences associated with women leaders, the voices weighing in are more wide-ranging than they’ve previously been.Toward workplace gender equality and work-life balance

Still, despite the encouraging rhetoric, there is much more work to be done.

As many as 135 Fortune 500 companies have no female executive officers, and fewer than 17 percent of corporate board seats are held by women, according to the Catalyst 2013 Census of Fortune 500. These inequities persist even as research continues to show that companies with greater leadership diversity tend to perform better.

There is no shortage of ideas for bringing gender equity to the workplace.

• In a recent conversation I had with Carlos Ghosn of Nissan Motor Company, he reiterated his desire to create initiatives that would provide women with more opportunities to lead and that he planned to use a broad range of educational programs to support them in their leadership roles.

• Tom Falk of Kimberly-Clark has spoken about initiatives to hire and promote more women leaders.

• Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in Lean In and Lean in for Graduates reflects the generational changes in motion addressing the role many men are taking at home by actively sharing of childcare responsibilities, managing the household duties and consciously providing help to their partners who pursue ambitious career goals.

• Researchers like Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli and others are teasing out nuanced forms of gender stereotyping and offering their own suggested remedies.

But these fixes, while important and needed, must be aligned with a woman’s personal efforts to advance in her career. The importance of institutional changes should not suggest that women should be passive in building the competence and confidence to take on leadership roles. In my decades of experience teaching and coaching male and female executives, it is the women who take a thoughtful and serious approach to advancing their skills and building relationships to support their ideas who have an impact and create meaningful careers. When you understand the workplace and the challenges it presents, and you have deep knowledge about yourself—skills, competencies and interpersonal approach—your career and life trajectory changes.

A couple of recent studies highlight the need for greater understanding of the dynamics at play. Wharton management assistant professor Matthew Bidwell and Roxana Barbulescu of McGill University found that women’s need for “self-consistency” makes them less likely to apply for certain jobs, such as those in finance and consulting, even though they are just as likely as men to be hired to fill those positions. They conclude in part that women tend to choose less risky careers, preferring to play it safe by applying for general management. Matthew will share his findings in Wharton’s new week-long program called Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success, which will run July 14–18 in Philadelphia.

Wharton Management Professor Matthew Bidwell

Wharton Management Prof. Matthew Bidwell. Photo credit: The Wharton School Flickr stream.

Recent research also tells us that men tend to negotiate more than women. One study found that 52 percent of men negotiated their starting salary as opposed to 13 percent of women. And throughout their careers, men initiate salary negotiations more frequently. There is a lot of talk about the persistent pay gap, and the assumption is that the only way to close it is to push the “equal pay for equal work” line of thinking. But perhaps there’s another side to it; women need to discover the day-to-day value of all types of negotiating and become more comfortable doing it.

When women take time to really understand their own behaviors, strengthen their technical and interpersonal competence and build stronger networks with one another, the organizations in which they work will change.

Leadership is often seen as a mysterious and ever-elusive goal for both men and women, but in reality leadership is a role you choose. Growing your leadership requires personal insight, trusted advisors who will challenge your thinking and constant updating of skills. Whether you lean in or step back, do not wait for others to define your career; the time to set your career in motion is now.