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The real reason women fall behind in their careers

Pam Wickham, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at RaytheonPam Wickham, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at Raytheon
Pam Wickham, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at RaytheonCourtesy of Pam Wickham

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important for women to take risks in business? is written by Pam Wickham, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at Raytheon.

Women in business should take risks for one simple reason: we can’t afford not to. To take a risk is to challenge the status quo, and for women, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t working. Look at the S&P 500. According to a recent CNNMoney report, only 24 of the 500 companies have women CEOs, and women hold less than 15% of key leadership positions.

If we are going to improve these numbers, we need to accelerate our efforts–and that, in turn requires taking some risks. Studies have shown that women in executive positions are inherently more conservative in taking on risk–more to prove, more to lose. Playing it safe, keeping your head down and doing what your job requires is a pretty good way to stay employed. But it’s also a brilliant strategy for getting left behind while someone else becomes your boss.

Personally, I like to think of myself as a risk-taker. I took a huge risk when I left a safe, stable job to explore life in New York City. But this risk actually led to my first job in PR, which in turn set me on the path for the career I’ve been building ever since. More importantly, it taught me that risk-taking can lead to bigger and better things.

Later in my career, I took another risk by becoming an early advocate for digital and social communication–harnessing the power of the Internet. Believe it or not, there was a time when big business was not embracing the Internet–it was an unknown commodity, vastly different from the normal, proven business channels. Adopting and activating this new channel required a certain amount of risk on both ends. I had to walk out on a limb, but the branch held, and the success that followed again showed me what can happen when you take the right chances.

I’ve taken a bunch of other risks throughout my career, and not all of them went well. But along the way I became comfortable with risk, even embracing it as a career accelerator. The fact of the matter is this: playing it safe is actually much more dangerous than taking a chance. As women, we owe it to ourselves, and to those who follow us, to push boundaries farther than we think they can go. We have to pick ourselves up when we stumble and never forget that embracing risk is a means of effecting change and growth. And if we’re going to advance in the workforce, that’s exactly what we need to do.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Why is it important for women to take risks in business?

The main reason you shouldn’t leave your job — yet by Kim Getty, president of Deutsch LA.

Here’s why this CEO doesn’t fear failure by Robin Koval, CEO and president of Legacy

How to be a fearless risk-taker at work by Donna Wiederkehr, CMO of Dentsu Aegis Network.

What the financial crisis taught this Bank of America executive about risk by Meredith Verdone, global wealth & investment management marketing executive at Bank of America.

How this woman became the first female dean of a top b-school by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

What I think about when I think about failing by Colleen Smith, vice president of SaaS and Cloud at Progress.

Here’s how bragging can boost your career by Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse.

This CEO cashed in her IRA to start her own company by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

An unlikely degree choice got me my dream job by Lori Bailey, global head of special lines at Zurich Insurance.

Why getting too comfy at work is the ultimate career killer by Krista Bourne, president of Houston Gulf Coast Region at Verizon Wireless.

Would you risk your job to move abroad? by Mary Beth Laughton, senior vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing at Sephora.

Why it’s okay to break the rules at work by Susan Coelius Keplinger, entrepreneur.

Why recent graduates shouldn’t plan their careers byTeresa Briggs, vice chair and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Is gender bias a reason to quit your job? by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

The one way to guarantee failure at work by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why starting my own business at 25 was a huge mistake by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

Build-A-Bear CEO: Why women need to take risks in business by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.