Women represent 54% of the labor pool in the finance and banking industries. But a precipitous drop occurs at the executive level. Just 11% of chief financial officers are women, while only 23% of all senior officer positions are held by women. The few women at the top with families typically have a stay-at-home spouse in support of their careers. The message is clear: women with families are not welcome.

A number of factors have conspired to keep many women from reaching the top in banking and finance. Significant financial rewards go to those who prioritize face time and hours at work, making it difficult for women to achieve work-life balance. Meanwhile, systemic gender bias often forces women who want to stay in banking and finance to adapt to male-dominated, aggressive cultures. The result? Finance has the largest pay differential of any industry.

To cope with a system that seems stacked against them, women in these industries are often forced to make difficult choices. They leave banking and finance, choose less-competitive career paths in government or community banking, take lower-level jobs or quit working altogether. The compound effect of these individual decisions is that the only women left in executive positions are those willing to put up with gender bias and extreme hours, thus perpetuating family-unfriendly cultures. 

Clearly, this is a complex problem. Organizational cultures require change. Men’s longstanding perceptions of women as leaders require change. However, waiting for these external changes to happen essentially curtails women’s power to make a difference.

I recently spoke about my research on this subject at American Banker’s Mentor Factor conference.

My co-authored book, The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family and Life, includes interviews with 118 college-educated women across the country and across industries. Most were in middle management, with 19% in upper management. Seventy-seven percent had children.

Our key insight was that many women make career-limiting decisions based on flawed underlying assumptions. When women reject or reframe those assumptions, they are able to accelerate their careers without sacrificing having a family.

One career-limiting and flawed assumption that many women make is that they are primarily responsible for home and family. Many interviewees said that they had to be flexible with their work in order to manage their families because their husbands could not take on that responsibility. If a husband had the inflexible corporate job, the wife had her own business. If he had his own business, she took a “flexible” corporate role.

This assumption means that women with families are expected — and expect themselves — to do it all at work and then do it all again at home. In our study, women kept their heads down and completed work tasks, expecting that their achievements would be visible and rewards would naturally follow. Meanwhile, their male peers networked and showcased their accomplishments to their managers. In order to rise, women need to make connections and take advantage of networking opportunities — but they can’t go to happy hours and awards dinners if they are also charged with managing most home and family tasks. In short, because women assume they must do it all, especially on the home front, they consistently put their careers second. 

Women should jettison this damaging assumption and reframe their beliefs to accommodate the idea that both parents are responsible for maintaining homes and families. Our interviewees that had successfully reframed this assumption renegotiated home tasks with their partners. They agreed that both spouses’ careers were important and then figured out how to accomplish the home tasks. But changing this assumption also requires the woman to let go of control. Dishes may not get washed, children may go to school with mismatched clothes and dinner may be carryout. Once the stark choice of either family or career is reframed, women can share — not delegate — responsibility. This will leave them free to treat their careers as equally important and free them to work late occasionally, attend networking events and travel.

A second career-limiting assumption many women make is that everything needs to be perfect. This aspiration to perfection shows up in women’s beliefs about their appearance, work and parenting. Some women are even unable to delegate tasks at work because they think no one else can be as effective. Women invest a disproportionate amount of time trying to perfect deliverables for the marginal utility derived.

When women give up on achieving perfection every time and tell themselves they are a work in progress and their efforts are good enough, we find that they improve their confidence and are more willing to take risks. They also become more productive because they prioritize which tasks need to be done well and which tasks just need to get done. This mind-set frees up significant amounts of time and energy that women can choose to invest in their careers or their personal lives — whichever is more urgent at a given time.

Women in the finance and banking industry, along with women across all industries, can reframe these assumptions to build lives that successfully integrate career and family. Rather than carrying beliefs that hold back their careers, women can make their jobs an essential — but not overriding — part of their choices. As more women shed the career-limiting assumptions that have held them back, they will help clear space for greater gender equality at the executive level.

Jodi Detjen has been a professor of management at Suffolk University since 1999. She co-authored The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Life and Family in May 2013.