Less than 100 years ago, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution gave women the right to vote. It would take several more decades for women to find their way into corporate America. Today, not only do women have a seat at the conference room table, but some sit at the head. Women have also caught up in terms of education: For every two men who received a college degree in 2010, three women achieved the same milestone.

Yet these “gains in education and labor force involvement have not yet translated into wage and income equity,” a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls said in March. “At all levels of education, women earned about 75% of what their male counterparts earned in 2009.” In addition, in the corporate world, most women are still not rising all the way to the top. According to a recent study from Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that works to promote opportunities for women in business, only 2.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women make up less than 15% of corporate officers.

“What’s holding us back?” asked a speaker at the recent Wharton Women in Business Alumnae Conference 2011. “The opportunity is there.”

The answer — or at least part of it, according to several speakers at the conference — is that women often don’t get what they want because they simply don’t ask for it. Studies reveal that women don’t negotiate for salaries as often as their male counterparts, they don’t network as effectively and they aren’t as skilled in finding or using the essential relationships that would help them successfully climb the corporate ladder. In short, despite more than a century of speaking out, many women in business today still haven’t learned to speak up.

“Women don’t ask,” stated Priya G. Trauber, a keynote presenter at the conference, who touched off a day-long discussion about how women could better make their voices heard. “We don’t ask people to cultivate us and we don’t make ourselves available to be cultivated.” Trauber’s views come from her work as an executive director at Morgan Stanley, where she is responsible for the bank’s strategy to attract, retain and develop women throughout all areas of the company. “We have to recognize what our male counterparts have known for years — that relationships matter, asking matters, and you have to make people see you.”

Trauber cited some studies that shed light on the possible reasons for the disparities. Linda Babcock, who co-authored a book with Sara Laschever called Women Don’t Ask, did a study of starting salaries of men and women coming out of graduate school programs. She found that male students earned about $4,000, or 7.6%, more than the average woman. “But when she dug deeper to figure out why this was happening, it was because only 7% of female students had negotiated a salary, whereas 57% of men had negotiated a salary,” Trauber said.

The book concluded that girls are taught to be others-focused, that women settle for the salary they need rather than fighting for the amount that they are worth, and that women often struggle between being too assertive and not being assertive enough. The book also said that women don’t ask for what they want or feel they deserve because they are fearful they won’t be liked, whereas men perceive asking as a fun and exciting game of strategy with little downside.

Getting Connected

Women’s failure to speak up also appears in “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling,” a Harvard Business Review research report that focused on the disparities between men and women in terms of sponsorship in the corporate world. The study found that men were 46% more likely to have a sponsor than women.

In fact, many women don’t even know what sponsorship is or why it is important. A sponsor, Trauber noted, is a senior person who actively advocates on another’s behalf and helps the person advance his or her career. A sponsor may connect the person to senior leaders in the company, promote the person’s visibility, give advice on career moves or appearance and help the person find career opportunities either within or outside the company.

A sponsor differs from a mentor, who is more of a confidante who can help with career difficulties and challenges, Trauber said. “A mentor is someone who advises and helps you think through issues, problems, the good and the bad. A sponsor is someone who helps you get paid, gets you promoted, gets you hired — they’re in the room when the decisions are being made.”

Sponsorship impacts career growth and advancement, the study found. When asked whether they were satisfied with their rate of career advancement, 70% of men and 68% of women who had sponsors said they were, compared with 57% of both men and women who didn’t have sponsors. Men and women with sponsors were also more likely to ask for stretch assignments and were more likely to ask for a raise than those without sponsors.

Having a sponsor helped Mary Tung advance her career at aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. “The self-promotion part is a challenge for me,” Tung, a deputy director of corporate international business development for the Asia Pacific region, acknowledged during a panel discussion. “I have done well in my career because I’ve always had a boss who was much more vocal than I and who would say that if I worked hard, [he or she] would advocate for me.”

Yet she didn’t always realize when that was happening. After one grueling round of buyouts and reductions, one of the vice presidents of the company asked her who her sponsor was. “I said, ‘I don’t know,'” she recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you this, Mary. If you didn’t have one, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.'” She eventually figured out who her sponsor was and has since learned to be more aware of such relationships. “Make sure that people know what you’re doing,” she advised the audience. “The key to success is not ‘what you know’ or ‘who you know;’ it’s ‘who knows what you know.'”

Despite the importance of sponsors, however, many women do not intentionally cultivate them, the “Sponsorship” study found. Women still need “an invitation to the party.” Women also don’t network as aggressively or use their relationships as effectively as men do. “Women network for social purposes, whereas men network to compete and win,” Trauber summarized. “In order to gain sponsors, you have to network, and you have to network with a purpose.”

Joanna Chang has noticed the difference between men’s and women’s networking styles in her work at Lancor, an executive search firm in San Francisco. “Men, I’ve observed, will hunt me down. They will call and call and email; they will find all kinds of excuses,” said Chang, a conference panelist. “It’s much harder work for me to reach a woman. She’s not as proactive in contacting me. Men network for transaction reasons. They don’t need to be BFFs [Best Friends Forever].”

The Harvard Business Review study also found that women who have sponsors don’t always know how to use them most effectively. Trauber herself discovered this to be the case in her relationship with her sponsor, a vice president of the firm. She would meet with him quarterly, showing him Power Point presentations that bulleted all the good work she had done in the past few months. After their third meeting, he asked her bluntly, “‘Why are you here? When you come to my office, you need to have something that you’re asking me for. I don’t want to have to figure out what you want me to do,'” Trauber recalled. “I learned that I needed to make that relationship matter, and it was up to me to manage the relationship, not up to him.”

Learning How to Ask

The reluctance to speak up extends beyond sponsorship to all types of career development, observed panelist Kelly P. Finch, a market manager and executive vice president at PNC Bank in Philadelphia. A self-described “corporate diva,” a persona she created early in her career to help give herself a voice, Finch now tries to both sponsor and mentor younger women.

“What I experience a lot is that women just don’t ask for what they want,” she said. “They don’t actually come out and say, ‘I’d like to be on a for-profit board. How do I make that happen?’ [They don’t] share that with people in their environment, whether it’s in their own organization or among their contacts, and say, ‘This is something that I’m trying to achieve.’ They want it but, for some reason, they hesitate to ask. I think just making that one small change could have a pretty dramatic impact.”

Learning how to “ask” reflects a larger issue of finding a voice and not being afraid to use it in the business world, noted Chang. “If you don’t speak, you will not exist. It really is that simple…. Let’s say you’re working from home, and you’re on a conference call and there are 20 people on the line. If you don’t figure out how to get your voice heard in some capacity, by either forcing yourself to ask a question, making a comment or just saying, ‘Yes, I got it,’ then everyone is going to forget that you were on the conference call…. So the [answer to the] question of whether or not we have a voice is, yes we do — but we have to proactively use it.”

Speaking up doesn’t need to be obnoxious or aggressive. Tung said that even people who are reserved can play an important role by finding a voice. She learned that if she couldn’t add to the conversation during a meeting, she would take notes and keep track of all the main points being discussed. “Then, at the end, I would interject and say, ‘Can I recap? Can I summarize?’ You would be surprised how many people don’t have that consolidated list. All of a sudden you have just added significant value to that meeting.”

Sometimes it is possible to add value to a conversation by acknowledging a person’s point, offering a counterpoint or simply saying, “‘Yes, I agree,'” pointed out Finch. “I used to be the person who would sit in the meeting, be part of the team and be so focused on: ‘Is this team getting to the goal?’ that if we were moving towards the goal in a way I thought was acceptable, I felt like I didn’t have to say anything,” she stated. Then “my boss said to me many years ago — and I thank him for this — ‘The reason I hired you is because I like the way you think. But if you don’t share your thinking, you’re not doing your job.'”

Finch acknowledges that “many times it feels like a risk to speak up,” but she no longer worries about that. “One day,” she said, “I woke up and realized that the risk of me not speaking was far greater than the risk of saying what I thought.”