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4 ways women can set themselves up to become a future CEO

Some 59 percent of men aspire to become CEO, compared to 40 percent of women, according to Working Mother Media.
Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.
Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.Miller Hawkins

Of all the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 24 are women.

The $64,000 question is how exactly do we increase that number?

According to Working Mother Media’s newly released study, “Gender Gap at the Top: What’s Keeping Women from Leading Corporate America?” there are four big obstacles that need to be addressed in order to launch more women into C-suite positions.

1. Learn exactly what’s needed to move up and what opportunities exist

According to the Working Mother study, 48 percent of men say they received detailed information on career paths to Profit and Loss (P&L) jobs, versus just 15 percent of women. Furthermore, 53 percent of men participated in a leadership development program within the past 24 months, compared to 28 percent of women.

“Many women are putting their heads down and doing their jobs early on in their careers, but by the time they lift their heads up and realize they want to be CEO someday, they haven’t built the building blocks,” said Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media. A big part of that, Barry said, is having P&L experience, but women often aren’t getting that opportunity.

Barry’s advice: “Seek out opportunities that have a financial impact on the organization.” If you can demonstrate to others that there was a project you worked on that directly impacted a company’s bottom line, you will set yourself on the right path to gain more of this experience in the future.

2. Find creative ways to build relationship capital

Many opportunities come from networking and building meaningful relationships with colleagues. However, women often have a harder time navigating this area. While 54 percent of men had a career discussion with their mentor within the past 24 months, only 39 percent of women did, according to the Working Mother study.

Cynthia DiPietrantonio, an industry consultant and former chief operating officer of The Jones Group and Alex and Ani, told Know Your Value that it’s not that women don’t know how to network well, but that it’s more challenging because they often don’t, say, golf or want to go out for a drink after work. “I’ve been in meetings with CEOs of major companies and after lunch, I go home and the male executives continue to spend time together while they golf,” DiPietrantonio said. “I think sometimes women take a knock that they don’t network well, but there are circumstances that hold us back,” she added.

Barry suggested finding creative ways to build relationships at work, such as forming a small group of colleagues that meet on a regular basis to talk about their careers and helping each other out. “Find your posse,” Barry said. “These people will promote you, and you can promote them,” she said, adding that sometimes there’s a ton of value in seeing yourself in the eyes of someone else who believes in the very best that you are. She also encourages women to ask a senior leader to meet a small group of female colleagues over coffee or lunch. “This shows that you’re a leader, that you want to learn and that you’re willing to share,” Barry said.

“People think a senior mentor is the one who will make your way, but the reality is that your peers will show you the way,” Barry added.

3. Don’t be afraid to take risks for new jobs or stretch assignments

Some 59 percent of men aspire to become CEO, compared to 40 percent of women, according to Working Mother. Barry said that this is because many women don’t see themselves in their leaders, and also because they aren’t getting the right experience early on in their careers.

DiPietrantonio said that she got the right experience—particularly P&L experience—early in her career from a mentor who said that he always believed in the right candidate for the job, not the right gender. She said that by holding herself accountable and never compromising her integrity, she was able to rise to the C-suite.

4. Find job opportunities that “walk the talk” of accountability in creating opportunities for women

Finally, some companies simply do a better job of creating opportunities for women. Do your research and seek opportunities in these types of companies. You can assess whether a workplace truly “walks the talk” for gender equality based on whether there are females in leadership positions within the company and whether they have professional development programs for women.

“We talk so much about holding people accountable in their jobs, and the same needs to be said for the companies we work for,” Barry said.