July 21, 2019, 6:09 p.m. EDT

Do you want to be CEO? Women face these extra obstacles on their way to the C-suite

Women still only make up 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs

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By Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch


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Minority women on average were more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have the corner office in their sights, according to a new report.

Do you want to end up in the C-suite? If you’re a woman, you’ll have your work cut out for you.

Many working women hoping to reach feeder positions for CEO still aren’t sure how to advance in their careers, don’t realize the importance of networking and mentorship, have too few role models in senior positions, and too seldom work at companies that actually prioritize advancing women, according to quantitative and qualitative research from the Working Mother Research Institute .

Women now make up a record-high number of CEOs at top-grossing companies, according to Fortune — but that “high” is still only a meager 6.6%, with women comprising 33 of all Fortune 500 CEOs. Some 25% of chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief information or technology officer, chief marketing officer and chief human resources officer positions are held by women, according to a 2019 analysis by Korn Ferry , up two percentage points from 2018.

Men, who continue to hold most of the leadership positions in corporate America, tend to network with other men, studies have found.

Many women are less likely to have a clear sense of how to get ahead compared to their male colleagues, the Working Mother Research Institute study found. They lack access to information about career trajectories that would pave their way to the executive suite and aren’t as aware of available career-advancement and mentorship programs, it said.

The study zeroes in on the kind of experience that gives people access to roles involving a company’s bottom line. This “profit and loss” (P&L) experience can give CEO candidates a critical boost — but just 15% of women said their company offers detailed information about career paths to P&L jobs, versus 48% of men. And only 11% of women said their company offers P&L training programs for women, compared to 42% of men who said the same.

The researchers conducted a nationally representative survey in October of 3,038 workers across 24 industries — three quarters of whom were women — followed by eight focus groups, six executive interviews and four one-on-one interviews with C-suite execs. Co-sponsors of the research included Aon /zigman2/quotes/203448336/composite AON -0.52% , JLL /zigman2/quotes/204556670/composite JLL +0.11% , Johnson & Johnson /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ +2.28%  , Prudential /zigman2/quotes/203750923/composite PRU +0.19%   and State Farm.

In the #MeToo era, six in 10 male managers say they’re uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with or working solo alongside female colleagues.

Women are also less likely than men to acknowledge the career-related advantages of mentorship, sponsorship and networking, the study found. They’re less likely to have been encouraged to consider jobs with P&L responsibility (14% versus 46%), gotten advice on how to get ahead (31% versus 54%), discussed their career with a sponsor or mentor (39% versus 54%) or attended a round table with senior executives (39% versus 63%).

Meanwhile, research suggests that men, who continue to hold much of the power in corporate America, tend to network with other men . And in the #MeToo era, around six in 10 male managers say they’re uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with or working solo alongside female colleagues, a LeanIn.Org survey found.

The Working Mother researchers also found a gender gap in career aspiration and risk taking: While nearly six in 10 men said their highest career aspiration was CEO, a C-suite executive or senior-level manager, only four in 10 women said the same. (Minority women on average were more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have the corner office in their sights, the authors noted.) Some were reluctant to pursue “stretch assignments” for which they weren’t 100% qualified, they added.

Women sometimes miss out on promotions and/or raises as they cut back hours or take leave from work after having children.

Another factor at play: Women sometimes miss out on promotions and/or raises as they cut back hours or take leave after having children. In fact, salaries and promotions among heterosexual couples start to diverge after they have kids.

What’s more, majorities of women in the Working Mother study who’d never held a P&L job cited a male-dominated culture (64%) and gender bias (54%) as obstacles to their advancement. The most-cited barriers included lack of training, lack of understanding about the career path and lack of information about open jobs.

“Women really often feel that the trade-offs for a senior-level C-suite job are not worth the burden when it comes to work-life choices,” added Ripa Rashid, the managing director of Culture@Work, a division of Working Mother Media, who served as a research advisor on the report.

The challenge in formulating solutions is the “chicken-and-the-egg” dilemma of what women can do versus the extent to which culture must change, said Laura Segal, the SVP of communications and external affairs for the American Association of University Women.

‘Seeking advocacy and relationships based on your merit and track record is a part of your job — and that’s how you become more impactful.’

“A lot of it has to happen where you have policies, culture [and] corporate change, as well as women learning how to empower themselves and having everybody’s support, with male allies as well,” Segal told MarketWatch.

The report’s authors lay out a number of recommendations for closing these gender gaps, including having transparency in senior-level succession planning, creating P&L exposure opportunities for folks who work in other parts of the company, boosting mentorship and sponsorship opportunities for women, and mandating that “diverse slates of qualified women candidates” be considered for P&L and feeder job openings.

As for what women can do on an individual level while they wait for organizational and societal change, here are seven tips from Rashid and Segal:

1. Seek out opportunities to learn about budgeting and financial management, as such skills can be a prerequisite for senior management roles. “Money matters in a company,” Segal said. “You need to show you can support and understand a bottom line.” Take advantage of any relevant career training your employer might offer, she said, and look for external programs as well.

2. Promote yourself. “That means not shying away from speaking engagements or being the person in the room to present a proposal,” Segal said. “Appropriately” take credit for your ideas, she added, and document your accomplishments.

3. Inquire about your available career options in conversations with mentors and sponsors, Rashid said, even if you’re not in a P&L role. Find out whether your company has a rotational program, she added, which could give you exposure to a revenue-generating role.

4. Stretch yourself. Don’t pass up a great opportunity just because you don’t feel 100% qualified for it, Rashid said — after all, job descriptions are rarely perfect. If you think you have the skills and the capability, she said, “don’t look for the 100% resume fit. It’s OK to stretch.” Play up your analytical skills and financial skills, which are prized in profit-and-loss roles, she said.

5. Put a premium on advocacy and mentorship. “We often hear from women that they focus a lot more on the actual work they’re doing, and think of relationships and advocacy networks as the icing on top,” Rashid said. “Seeking advocacy and relationships based on your merit and track record is a part of your job — and that’s how you become more impactful.” You can do the best work in the world, she pointed out, but that won’t help your career if others can’t advocate on your behalf.

6. Look for ways to stay in the C-suite pipeline rather than forgoing opportunities. As many women head into their second, third or fourth jobs, Segal said, they sometimes don’t seek out that next promotion because it doesn’t align with their life plans or child-care demands. “If you shy away from those pathways or they’re not offered to you … then you are falling off those tracks” while your coworkers forge ahead, she said. Seek out benefits like flexibility and paid time off, Segal said, and advocate for them within your company.

“You can look at your individual circumstances, and how to advance yourself, and really thoughtfully not take yourself out of the game,” she said.

7. Keep in mind the perks of senior leadership roles. The C-suite isn’t all punishing hours and poor work-life balance — it also brings with it greater impact, agency and autonomy, Rashid said. That means having clout in setting your own schedule, she said, and having the money to fund causes you care about. Don’t overlook “the joys of power,” she added. “We’re not celebrating any of that enough.”

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