Heels clicking over the hardwood floors of a downtown carriage house, Jennet Robinson Alterman hurried between an interviewer, her computer and a staffer last week with a few urgent questions.

Why the rush? The Center for Women was gearing up for its annual Women in Business conference, which drew nearly 300 women.

The March 1 conference, held on the first day of Women's History Month, has become one of the Lowcountry's major networking opportunities for women in leadership roles and for women who aspire to them.

Imagine creating a sort of Good Old Girls Network in the heart of the historic South.

“There is a definite network in this state, and men have been doing it for longer than women,” said Alterman, the center's executive director.

Women cannot simply blame men for the disparities that remain today. Women must realize and promote their own value. They must become leaders who promote and mentor other qualified women, center leaders agree.

“Leadership in business today is made by men for men,” said Jane Perdue, the center's board chairwoman and a former telecommunications executive. “We are helping women step into their power.”

Suffice it to say, there is room for improvement.

South Carolina is tied for second-to-last place nationwide for the percentage of women elected to its state Legislature. Only four women in the state's history have been elected to statewide office. It has one female state senator.

Even among local bodies, decisionmaking remains mostly in men's hands.

The Medical University of South Carolina Board of Trustees is all men. The Charleston County Aviation Authority board is all men. The Citadel has one just woman on its board of visitors. Charleston City Council has only one female member. Ditto for Summerville and the Isle of Palms.

And so on.

Attaining these posts often comes down to who you know but also who knows that you want to serve.

The reality: Too few women are raising their hands.

“Yes, there is bias. But you have to stand up for yourself. You have to believe in your value,” Alterman said. “And we will help you.”

But if you expect the Center for Women to be a modern version of the NOW-women's lib-Gloria Steinem hub of liberal agendas, guess again.

The center, with its six-woman staff, doesn't promote social issues. It takes no political stances. It doesn't provide victim services. It doesn't endorse candidates. And its more than 1,000 members include conservative to liberal businesswomen, educators, entrepreneurs, health care professionals and others.

The center's singular goal: help women achieve economic independence and take on leadership roles, or take any next step toward their own successes.

It is the only women's center in South Carolina focused on developing women professionally and personally and is the state's largest women's organization.

“Once women are economically empowered, we can take on the rest of it,” Alterman said.

So what is the value of a woman in the workplace today?

In South Carolina, it's about $10,000 a year less than her male counterparts if pay is a key indicator of value.

When the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, women working full time, year round were paid 59 cents for every $1 paid to men.

Fifty years have passed. The gap has narrowed.

But women nationwide still are paid about 77 cents to a man's $1, a gap that has stagnated in recent years, according to the U.S. Census. White men earn more than white women; black men earn more than black women. And so forth.

People often blame the wage gap on women's childbearing years, namely leaving the workforce or working part time to raise children.

However, a new American Association of University Women report shows the gap starts before women have children.

A year after college graduation, women are paid 82 percent of what male colleagues are paid, the report says, even though women are attending college at higher rates than men, graduating in greater numbers and earning higher grades.

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563 or jhawes@postandcourier. com