In this yearly all-women issue of Networking Times, we asked our contributors, "How did you become a confident business woman?" Underlying questions might be:

Before you go on to read the answers, let's look at a broader context for our theme.

More and more professional women have been making news in recent years. Female judges are serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Women news anchors outnumber men two to one for the first time on major television networks. A record number of female CEOs are being chosen to lead Fortune 500 companies, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, PepsiCo, and Avon.

Amidst political, economic, and cultural upheaval, the world is increasingly turning to its women for vision, talent, and leadership. According to the Whitehouse Project Report for Benchmarking Women's Leadership, it is wise to do so: "When women are present in significant numbers, the bottom line improves—from financial profits to the quality and scope of decision making."

However, while women may be participating in the workforce in equal—and in some cases, higher—numbers relative to their male peers, few of them make it to the top. The above-mentioned report concludes that women are stalled at 18 percent, with numbers much lower among women of color, across the leadership spectrum in the ten different sectors studied. This ranges from a low of 11 percent in the military to a high of 23 percent in academia, with an average of 16 percent in business.

These numbers are especially low when considering that, in every sector except the military, women make up half or more of the staff or line workers. With so few women sitting at the leadership table with men, says the report, we are missing out on women's ideas, talents, and experience on corporate boards, in editorial pages, and in governments.

The good news? Most of us are open to and intent on bringing more women on board to help build a better world. Recent polls indicate that 90 percent of both women and men are ready to see women as top leaders in all sectors, from business and politics to journalism and law. Yet, the Whitehouse report points out, "This level of comfort we express is accompanied by the misperception that women are already leading equally alongside men."

We need to know where we are in order to understand where we need to go, states the report. In addition, it asks the obvious question, "If most of us are comfortable with women leading in all sectors, then why are we so far from that goal?"

Do women lack what it takes? Not likely. The report quotes a study in which participants rated women above men in five of the eight character traits they valued most highly (honesty, intelligence, creativity, outgoingness, compassion) and equal to men in two others (hardworking, ambition). Men rated higher in only one trait—decisiveness.

Is it that women simply don't want to lead? This seems even less likely. Women exceed men in earning college and advanced degrees, and are starting businesses at twice the rate men do. Female professionals are pouring into all sectors, filling entry- and mid-level manager positions in nearly every field. Why wouldn't they flourish as senior managers?

There is no clear consensus on how to resolve this paradox. Meanwhile, its reality continues to stare us starkly in the face, as illustrated in the following examples from the entertainment, sports, and religious sectors:

What will it take to address this contradiction and close the leadership gap?

The Whitehouse Report answers, "It will take a change in culture where various styles of leadership are recognized and rewarded as valuable and effective, and changes in how organizations accommodate work-family balance."

How are we doing with that in network marketing?

The report continues, "More companies can bring women into the fold by providing committed mentorship programs and developing the skills needed for success: international exposure, strong skill-building, and role models."

Isn't this what we focus on in our business?

There is one more factor the report doesn't mention, perhaps because it's much more subjective and therefore not so readily quantifiable.

"Often I see women still conditioned by self-limiting beliefs that they are less worthy or less capable than men," says Dr. Masa Cemazar in this issue.

About the work women need to do to realize our full potential, Donna Johnson adds, "Some of it is internal, in terms of building our own confidence and finding our place to shine."

As Jess Weiner points out in the lead interview, the media haven't exactly been helpful, with advertisements incessantly telling women we have to be and look different in order to be acceptable. Why do they keep giving us these messages? Because they work: we buy into them!

So what will it take for women to build their inner confidence and step into leadership? How can we reach a critical mass of female leaders so that we can move permanently beyond gender issues into true partnership—especially in business?

"We need to honor our feminine qualities, but we also need to know the numbers and facts," says Janine Avila.

"Taking action leads to competence—and confidence," adds Hilde Rismyhr Sæle.

"Tap into your purpose," writes Kathy Paauw. "Start serving a bigger cause in a way that makes your heart sing." Read on and be inspired to find your song.

JOSEPHINE GROSS, Ph.D. is cofounder and editor of Networking Times.