12/09/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Are We Asking the Right Questions About Women's Advancement at Work?

The Sunday New York Times front-page story "Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers" is a look at how women can make it to the top by engaging in an increasingly popular form of "marrying well" -- having a stay-at-home husband.

An interesting article, it nonetheless points to yet another avenue women may take to get ahead that is nearly impossible to find. Where does one look for a spouse who aspires to stay at home with the children? Sure, they're out there. But is this a viable path for women wishing to reach the top? Or is it another intriguing, rare-as-hen's-teeth option that opens doors for a very few?

The NYT article is about wealthy women of Wall Street and so it was not intended to be representative of the majority of women working in corporate America. How couples work out "who buys the wife's jewelry when she makes upward of a million dollars a year and the husband earns little or nothing" is interesting. But it's difficult to feel too sorry for their dilemma. Similarly, when the husband won't or can't host parties for his wife's clients, limiting as that might be, it's hardly an unsolvable problem when you're bringing home a bundle of money each week.

Women need solutions that can actually be applied if they are to advance in organizations dominated by men. Those come from good questions about the inner workings of such organizations. Women need to learn what makes organizations tick and that usually means politics. Yet, as a rule, women come late to taking an interest in and understanding politics.

The dearth of female mentors is one reason. Another is the tendency for women to be mentored by men when they're "cute-and-little" and a threat to no one. They become comfortable with this, often thinking those feminists had it wrong. When they start going for the big jobs, however, competing against often similarly competent males, they often find advice is not so readily available.

By the time most women reach the point where promoting them to senior levels means not promoting a man, they have offended someone. Who hasn't by then? Wells are easily poisoned with comments like, "She's brilliant and everyone loves her, but is she a good fit?" When women don't know this sort of seemingly nebulous way of judging them is in the works, they are blindsided.

Political purists don't survive in highly and pathologically political organizations. You have to be on your toes, know what goes on behind the scenes, read the tealeaves, and position yourself for promotion by establishing as irrefutable a case as possible. You need to find comfort with power and learn how it's obtained and used by those who get ahead.

That's a tall order. But it's not as tough as finding a future spouse, or converting a current one, who'll stay at home with the kids when you need to fight the good fight at work. It's one way forward on Wall Street, but it's not the solution to women's low representation at high levels and lower salaries across the board.

Front-page articles like the one by Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg in The New York Times are important to the goal of discussing and grappling with why women lag behind their male peers in so many fields. But when the rubber hits the road, what women need to do for starters aside from make themselves valuable, if not in some way indispensable, is to know why highly competent women who came before them didn't make it to the top and why others did.

You have to ask yourself if you're in an organization where your preferred style of politics is suited to the prevailing one and whether you're willing and able to adapt. Are you where what you have to offer adds value, where what you have to say is heard, and where your management/leadership skills have been duly noted?

If the answer is "no" to any of these questions, then the task before you is not to find a stay-at-home spouse to care for the kids, although a possible asset, it's to begin teaching yourself more about politics and to stay far away from full-fledged "leaning in" until you're sure where you are is where you're likely to thrive.

Kathleen also blogs about politics at work here. She is the author of several books on politics at work, including the debut mystery-thriller Shadow Campus.