Empowering Women to the C-Suite – Breaking the Glass Ceiling

By CSU Global - August 19th, 2019

Climbing the corporate ladder and entering the C-suite ー that is, the inner circle of executive leadership at companies ー is a dream many professionals hold dear. A rise to the top of an organization takes many years and a lot of hard work but results in substantially larger paychecks, a widened sphere of influence, and increased power to affect change in the workplace and in the world at large. For context, the average CEO at one of America’s 500 biggest companies makes more money in a day than a worker makes in a year, according to CNN Money.  

Many of today’s more notable CEOs, like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, are in their roles by dint of having started companies themselves. However, that doesn’t discount the hard work it took to get there: for example, Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO of Google, first explored the idea of Google while completing his dissertation at Yale. In 1997, Page and his business partner Sergey Brin officially launched Google from their friend’s garage. Google’s remarkable (for the late 90s) speed was a byproduct of necessity: in order to keep Google’s servers contained in a limited space, Page worked tirelessly to improve efficiency and increase the amount of information each computer could contain. The hard work paid off: Page is now worth about $55 billion. 

Lists of “most influential” CEOs, like one compiled by Forbes in 2018, include several familiar candidates: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), and Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan Chase). 

Notably absent from Forbes’ list? Women. In fact, it’s difficult to find any list of influential CEOs in which women break into the top 20. One exception is Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. She garnered a ranking of 10 in CEOTodayMagazine.com’s list of the 50 most influential CEOs. 

And that’s just the very top brass. Executive roles of all kinds ー Chief Operations Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Vice President of Finance, President of Overseas Operations, and so on ー are notably not held by women. So, what’s going on? How can women break into high-paying careers, lead companies, and influence generations of other women to follow their footsteps? Let’s start with a look at the current working world. 

A Snapshot of the Working World 

According to the Center for American Progress, women earn the majority of both undergraduate (57%) and graduate (59%) degrees, along with nearly half of all medical and law degrees. They constitute 52% of the college-educated workforce and hold half of all professional and management-level jobs. 

However, those numbers don’t translate to equal representation in the C-suite. In the financial industry, for example, women constitute 61% of accountants and auditors but only 12.5% of Chief Financial Officers. Women hold only 20% of board seats at S&P 500 companies and represent only 6% of CEOs. Only 7% of tech companies have women on their boards. 

Research by McKinsey debunked the myth that female underrepresentation in the C-suite is due to women spending less time in the workforce than men. According to their findings, women actually spend just as much time in the workforce as men and quit or change jobs at the same rates. In that same study, McKinsey determined that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 79 women will be. And when women do manage to break the glass ceiling and enter the C-suite, they’re faced with a potentially crippling phenomenon: being the only woman in a crowd of (typically white) men. 

So, what can companies (and women) do to help raise these rates of female representation at the highest levels of business? One of the main things, McKinsey reports, is to fill the talent pipeline. If women are not promoted early or the same rates as men, they are simply statistically less likely to be selected for top jobs. 

The Myth of Improvement

The Center for American Progress acknowledges that women have made strides in the workforce since the massive cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, but that progress has stalled in the past decade.

“Yet, the progress has been uneven and is slowing—there are significant racial and ethnic differences in terms of women’s success in moving into the top-level jobs, and overall, women continue to fall far short of matching the success of their male counterparts in breaking into the top jobs.” – Center for American Progress

Women in top management positions reached a peak in the early to mid 2000s. Since then, percentages of female board members, top executives, and CEOs have all declined.

Women of color encounter even higher hurdles for representation in executive positions, holding only 3.9% of senior-level officials and executive positions and representing only 0.4% of CEOs. They are the most underrepresented group in leadership in the professional world, falling behind men of color, white women, and white men. 

Strategies to Earn Top Jobs and Move the Needle on Female Leadership

If a main strategy for breaking into the C-suite is to be promoted to managerial positions early on, then there are clear and actionable steps women ー and all candidates ー can take to stand out from the crowd. 

  1. Find ways to become indispensable. Hone unique skill sets and use them whenever possible. Excel wiz? Particularly skilled at design? Know how to solve problems under pressure? Proudly and confidently use those skills.
  2. Help colleagues and be a good team player. It may sound counterintuitive, but if a team is functioning optimally due to a natural leader’s hard work, it’ll show. 
  3. Take initiative. Offer to spearhead a project, tackle a tough client’s request, or build out a strategy to increase company sales. 
  4. Learn or improve skills through things like webinars, conferences, and books. 

Today’s business climate, according to MoneyInc.com, could benefit greatly from more female leaders and CEOs. Women boast excellent problem-solving capabilities and tend toward collaboration ー crucial traits for fostering an environment of business growth. And, according to research by Catalyst, a more diverse executive leadership team is tied to higher revenue and better company profitability. Armed with these statistics, women in the workforce should feel even more validated in their climb towards the C-suite. 

Women can also benefit from mentorship in their pursuit of top jobs. Mentorships ー like any relationship ー take time to build up but can give women a serious leg up as they climb toward the C-suite. And once women settle into the C-suite, it pays to, well, pay it forward. To help develop the next generation of women leaders, women in executive roles could make a serious impact by offering mentorship training and lifting up promising candidates, regardless of sex or gender. Offering career counseling or career advice for women goes beyond helping women improve the caliber of their work or work more collaboratively. It can help women break into the management roles that are required for any upward climb.

As the late Toni Morrison stated: 

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”

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