In the last decades of the 20th century, women have made considerable progress in the U.S. but their advancement in the leadership ranks has stagnated. With women constituting over half of the U.S. population, they also hold almost the same share of all professional-level jobs. But when it comes to leadership positions, women lag substantially far behind their male counterparts. They make up only 25 percent of executive/senior-level positions or managers. They hold even less (19 percent) of board seats, and make up less than 5 percent of the CEOs.

Perceptions and stereotypes force many to see the shortage of women in leadership roles as disinterest in such positions or professions. But the fact is American women still face considerable barriers to reaching their full potential.

There’s a longstanding assumption in the American workplace that an “ideal worker” is someone who’s fully committed or devoted, with no conflicting demands. This inadvertently causes most women employees with care-giving responsibilities to remain stuck at lower-levels. Lots of hard working and high-achieving women take time off from their demanding professions to spend more time for themselves, or at least look for positions that allows more flexibility. No wonder many women professionals are marginalized when they set aside time for life outside the office.

There are several other structural barriers as well. There is an acute shortage of role models for women to look up-to. Women who seek to move up in the organization lack mentors and opportunities in male-dominated organizations. They lack the options to develop social and professional relationships with respect to organizational dynamics.

A combination of these factors have served to marginalize women, pushing them down or out of the workplace amid rising expectations to the contrary. The few women leaders that are around are burdened with helping to inspire and equip the next generation for advancement. Thankfully, many of these successful women are concerned with women’s plight for advancement, and are really passionate about inspiring the next generation to grow beyond the current levels.

The women leaders of our generation have their task cut out. They have to set the example and inspire the next generation to dream big. Whether be it heading a company, running a small business, making a partner at a law firm or even a stay-at-home mom, they should be empowered to advance in their careers and life.

Progress may be slow, but we can close the leadership gap even with one leader at a time. We need to raise awareness about the work of women professionals by providing equal opportunities for their participation and leadership in a broad spectrum of fields, preferably at the highest-levels.