A Wall Street Journal conference asks the question, “What’s holding women back?”

I’d love some feedback on this from colleagues who know more about economics than I do. But having read much of the material produced by the conference, including mini-profiles of women who have made it to the top in their professions, I am going to venture a heretical answer: Nothing is holding women back. 

The underlying theme of the conference, however, was quite the opposite of my contention. A big issue was that there are many women in middle management but they are not as well represented at the very top of comapnies. McKinsey & Co. presented a report that indicated that women are not fully competitive at the upper echelon. Vikram Malhotra, chairman of the Americas at McKinsey & Co., spoke: 

Our corporate talent pipeline is leaky, and it is blocked. Qualified women enter the work force in sufficient numbers, but they begin to drop off at the very first sorting of talent, when they’re eligible for their very first management positions. And it only gets worse after that.

There is a silver lining, a leverage point-middle-management women. They have enormously high aspirations. They’re accumulating new skills and gaining expertise in how business works. And they are growing more confident and more ambitious day by day.

They really want to move to the next level, as much as men do. We must capture their minds and hearts before their ambitions turn sour. And we know that their ambitions do turn sour before those of men down the road.

So what is discouraging and holding back such highly qualified, highly motivated women? First, the familiar structural barriers. They include a lack of women role models, exclusion from informal networks where connections are made, and the absence of sponsorship. Second, there are lifestyle issues-concern about the 24/7 executive lifestyle and travel requirements.

I am not sure I buy any of this-except the bit about lifestyle issues. Women do tend to make different choices from those of men. They are likely to want to work part-time or to get out of the job market for several years to raise children. This isn’t being held back-it’s making a choice.

One of the recommendations is that businesses embrace “diversity” programs. It seems to me that this is risky because qualified men may end up being passed over for less qualified women to satisfy some diversity ideal. A course in salary negotiation for women might be better.