07/19/2012 05:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Women Are Aiming High

We've been told to shoot for the stars -- and that's exactly what we're doing. Two-thirds of young women participating in a Pew Research survey rate their career as either "one of the most important things" or "very important" on their list of life priorities. These are young women between the ages of 18 and 34. In 1997, only 56 percent of young women in the same age group ranked their careers as similarly high priorities.

Career ambitions have become the norm among young women, who firmly believe that they can reach their high goals. Right now, the reality is a little less positive: Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts (in 2010, the average woman earned 77 percent of the salary a man earned for the same work). That number has been rising steadily since the 1970's, which speaks well for the futures of career-oriented young women, but it still means that most women should be making 20 percent more than current salaries dictate.

Reaching the Stars

We're headed in the right direction right now, especially with the recent naming of Marissa Meyer as the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. Trends are moving us at least a little closer to parity. The Fortune 500 now includes nineteen companies helmed by women. That number may sound a little low, but just seven companies in the same group had women CEOs in 2003.

The really good news isn't the number of women currently heading up big companies, though. Rather, we need to look at which women are on their way up. The average age of a CEO leading a company in the S&P 500 is between 50 and 59. Eighty percent of CEOs in that group are over the age of 50. That means that few current CEOs of big countries got their start in business any later than 1980. If you look at a timeline of how women's rights in the workplace have progressed in that time, it's clear that these women are the pioneers. Many of the court cases that decided how legislation like the Equal Pay Act would be implemented came during the early days of these women's careers.

But as they lead the way, others have followed. While it's unlikely that we'll see either pay parity or an equal number of women heading up Fortune 500 companies in the next few years, the trends are headed in the promising direction.