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It's Time to Close the Workplace Gender Gap

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It's hard to believe that a gender bias still exists in the workplace, more than 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act­. While women in the workplace have been "leaning in," in the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to the challenge of climbing the corporate ladder, a female executive can still be ousted for being "pushy." In 2014, professional hurdles for women still remain and they are hard to ignore.

Progress against gender bias has been agonizingly slow. As a McKinsey report noted, women now fill 53 percent of entry-level positions in the biggest U.S. companies, but only 28 percent of vice president and senior managerial positions, according to according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization.

Corporate board membership numbers for women are even lower. Women hold only 17 percent of board seats in corporate America, Catalyst has found. I've served on several boards and in each case I've been one of just a few women in the room. As this gender gap persists, it's hard for women to enter the workforce with enough confidence to pursue management positions. And so a self-perpetuating cycle continues.

Related: Do Women Leaders Walk a Tightrope to Be Seen as Effective and Likable?

The importance of female mentors.

As an attorney who moved into the public policy and government and now as a university president (all positions in fields dominated by men), I have faced challenges while working my way up.

I wouldn't have possessed the confidence to achieve success without a strong mentor and sponsor support. Early in my career, I thrived thanks to the support of a mentor at the Federal Trade Commission, Commissioner Patricia P. Bailey, who was my boss. She had successfully broken through the glass ceiling in Washington in a very tough, male-dominated arena. This woman not only served as a role model but also actively helped me move up the ladder: two vital ingredients in helping me arrive at the leadership position I hold today.

A recent survey commissioned by Bentley University on preparedness and women in the workplace underscores the importance of mentorship programs. Among nonmilllennial women who responded to the survey, 55 percent said women-specific corporate-mentorship programs could better help female employees succeed in business and 52 percent said that women-specific networking could help female workers thrive.

As women get close to attaining leadership positions, they need someone to turn to for help reaching that next step. One of the reasons so many women drop out of middle management positions is they don't see other female staffers in similar jobs around them

When talking with business-minded millennial women who fear gender bias, I often share two recommendations: Look for a mentor who will not only support your career ambitions but who will also help you reach your goals. Also, surround yourself with strong professional women who will encourage you to succeed.

Related: Women Win in the Classroom, Struggle in the Boardroom (Infographic)

Men can play an important role, too.

Women are not the only ones who can help close the gender gap. Male business executives and managers should also push for gender equality within their companies. In fact, it's in employers' own interest to encourage their female employees. According to Bentley University's Women in Business survey, 57 percent of corporate recruiters say women are better job candidates than men.

CEOs can help women develop leadership skills and make internal changes in work environments in terms of preparedness. Specifically, they need to help colleges understand what they are looking for when it comes to internship experiences, resumes, cover letters and interviews.

Some of the contributing factors to the gender gap are the inner workings of workplaces, which haven't kept up with the times. For example, many organizations are still set up the same way they were 50 years ago -- geared toward working men who are the sole supporters of their families. Traditional workplace-leave policies and promotion tracks offer very little room for growth or diversity to those moving up the corporate ladder. These policies need to change and progress.

Male managers and executives must be on board. In the Bentley University survey, 37 percent of the men responding to the survey agreed that male managers and executives can play a more active role in mentoring and developing women to better succeed in the business world.

Our economy is only at its best when every individual has an equal opportunity to participate. It is in the best interest of all business leaders -- whether they're a man or a woman -- to stop ignoring this issue and "lean in" to help women succeed.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Spot Subtle Bias

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