A couple of weeks ago, Sam Fiorella wrote an interesting blog post called, “Under-Representation of Women in Corporate and Political Offices.”

In it, he discusses how women make up more than half the population in the United States and comprise nearly 47 percent of the jobs, yet less than 20 percent hold executive seats in either boardrooms or political offices.

When I commented on the post, I talked about how, while some men are beginning to stay home to be the caretakers, it’s not what comes naturally to them. It’s not yet societally acceptable for men to work inside the home, raising kids and taking care of a house.

Think about it from your perspective.

When you hear about someone’s partner who is a stay-at-home dad, what’s your first thought?

I can almost guarantee it’s not a good one.

Because of cultural norms and even because of good, old hard wiring, we tend to be the ones focused on raising kids while our male counterparts work outside of the home. Not all of us (I certainly am not that way), but a very high percentage of us.

We Let Up When it’s Time for Promotion

In May 2011, Sheryl Sandberg – the COO of Facebook – gave a commencement speech at Barnard, an all-women’s college. During the 20 minute speech (which is well worth the watch, if you haven’t already seen it), she talks about why women aren’t given more leadership roles and why we still don’t have equality.

Her reasoning? We tend to let up for promotions when we think it’s time to get married and again when we think it’s time to have a baby (or babies). Not when we do those things. When we think it’s time.

Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce.  It doesn’t happen that way.  They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there.  Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day.  Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.

I tend to agree with her. I’ve run a marketing communications firm in Chicago for nearly eight years and I’ve found the exact, same thing with the young women in our office. Which, by-the-way, is extremely frustrating for this leader who provides the flexibility most women want.

It’s not our fault. It’s ingrained. It’s natural. It’s in our DNA.

Women-Owned Businesses

But there’s good news coming out of National Association of Women Business Owners and web.com about the state of women-owned businesses.

It turns out the crazy economy of 2008-2011 created a reason for women to take matters into their own hands: Eighty-five percent of those surveyed predict more women will start businesses this year.

And, for those who already run businesses, 81 percent are optimistic about growth this year and 74 percent are confident about the economic outlook of their organizations (I concur).

Of course, this doesn’t speak to equality or women in the c-suite for the Fortune 10 companies or in the top branches of political office. But it does mean more and more women are contributing to the health of our economy through job creation, innovative products and services, and getting closer to the elusive work/life balance.

We’re Our Own Worst Enemies

But there’s a secondary problem.

This past Sunday, Danica Patrick won pole position at the Daytona 500. During her interview she said she doesn’t want to be the best female racer; she wants to be the best racer period.

And then the jokes lit up my Facebook and Twitter streams.

She won “pole” position. She’s hot. People made jokes related to strippers. And I threw up in my mouth a little.

It wasn’t just men. Women were playing along, too. I don’t know if that’s out of jealousy and being catty or if some of us really believe it’s okay to take away a big achievement from a woman by making jokes about her dancing on a pole.

I’ve written before about how we’re our own worst enemies. We’re hardwired to be mean to one another. But that doesn’t mean we have to be.

Women’s Equality

If we truly want equality in the workforce. If we truly want to be in the executive suite. If we truly want to be the very best at our job, not the best woman, but the best overall. We have to stop letting these things happen.

We have to stop taking our foot off the gas pedal when we think we might be getting married or ready to have babies. We have to stop buying products from companies that use sex and women to sell. We have to stop allowing jokes to be made about other successful women.

It starts with us. We have to lead the change. If we don’t, we’ll continue to moan about how it’s not fair and it’s not equal while nothing changes.

A version of this first appeared on the Sensei Marketing blog.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich