More Women Are Joining the C-suite. Here’s How They’re Doing It.

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Women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers over the past few decades, climbing from 32.7 percent participation in 1948 to 56.8 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. As part of this process, more women have reached executive positions. As Pew Research Center pointed out, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies grew from 0 to 26 between 1995 and 2015 – this means women occupy 5.2 percent of such roles.

Despite these advances, however, women are still vastly underrepresented at the executive level. Men still take the majority of these positions, and women are promoted much more slowly. According to Fortune, women become CEOS of S&P 500 companies at a rate of 1 every 2 years.

CNN Money broke these positions down by industry and made some interesting discoveries. While no single sector contains an overwhelming majority of female CEOs, one can clearly see the gap in leadership positions:

Do Women Want to Be in the C-Suite?

Many arguments attempt to explain the gender gap in executive positions. Some say women simply don’t want leadership roles and instead prefer lower-level jobs in caretaking and educational professions. This hypothesis might be true for some female workers, but statistics suggest otherwise in regard to the majority. Gallup’s “Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived” report found 45 percent of employed women would like to become a CEO or have a position in senior management or leadership. Interestingly, only 54 percent of men said the same, which shows a much smaller difference in ambition than conventional ideas about gender and work suggest. Additionally, women were just as likely as men to say they were extremely or very serious about achieving such a role.

A similar number of men and women aspire to be CEOs or senior managers.

Furthermore, the typical demands of executive roles generally don’t deter women, according to the report. The idea of working 50 hours per week—the same number as the average male executive—dissuaded only 20 percent of female respondents. That number rises dramatically when job expectations increase to working 60 hours per week, but it does so for both genders: 72 percent of women are discouraged by such a requirement, compared to 78 percent of men.

Aspirations aside, many people joke that adding more women in executive positions would negatively affect a business. In actuality, the Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed 21,980 firms from 91 companies and came to the opposite conclusion: Businesses with more women in corporate leadership roles tend to show higher performance. In reviewing the data, the institute estimated that firms that grow from 0 to 30 percent female leadership would increase their net revenue margins by 15 percent.

How Are Women Reaching the Executive Level?

One way women rise to the C-suite is through their education. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, the number of women pursuing an advanced business degree rose from around 1,000 in 1971 to 88,000 in 2014. This is still fewer than the number of men pursuing MBAs, but the gap is shrinking. If this trend continues and more women acquire advanced business degrees, it stands to reason that the number of female executives could also increase.

An MBA is an effective tool for advancing to a corporate leadership position. However, women interested in becoming an executive may find obtaining an Executive Master of Business Administration rather than a traditional MBA more effective. Executive MBA curriculums go beyond the standard MBA coursework and are designed to teach students the intricacies of leadership from the highest level. In particular, the Washington State University Carson College of Business offers a 100% online EMBA tailored to meet the needs of working professionals. The program can be completed in as few as 18 months and is best suited for individuals with years of leadership experience.

More women are getting MBAs, which can help them reach the C-suite.

Aside from increased education, women find an easier time becoming executives if they work at smaller companies, according to John Challenger, CEO of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. In a conversation with Bloomberg BNA, he pointed out that having fewer people and positions on the path to the C-suite makes it easier for women to escape the biases that are more common at organizations with more employees.

Another thing to note is that many women who reach the executive level do so in a particular area.

“If you really peel the onion back, women may be making it to the C-suite, but they’re doing it in HR,” Mara Swan, executive vice president of global strategy and talent for the consulting firm ManpowerGroup, said to Bloomberg BNA.

Executive HR roles tend not to lead to a CEO position, which is unfortunate for ambitious women who find themselves in this job. Luckily, businesses can increase such executive opportunities for women.

Helping Women Access the C-Suite

Women have made many leadership gains on their own, but they shouldn’t have to do so completely unsupported. In fact, businesses can help their female employees reach the C-suite in at least 3 ways:

1. Fortune recommended increasing the number of female board members. Female employees who see more women in the boardroom are better inspired to pursue open executive-level positions.

2. Fast Company noted that mentoring can help women bridge the experience and skills gap that could cost them an executive role. Female students at the Carson College may find helpful mentors at our 3-day Leadership Conference, which gives EMBA students the opportunity to meet and learn from their peers, alumni, faculty, and business leaders.

3. Gallup’s report pointed out that children are the primary factor in a woman’s decision to work. It’s no secret that women are generally the primary caregivers, and this fact compromises many women’s ability to achieve their full potential at work. Businesses that want to increase their number of female executives should make sure these positions provide an adequate work-life balance or at least have some sort of family care benefits. Such initiatives benefit men as well, giving them more time and capability to raise their children.

While the number of women in executive positions has increased over the years, there’s still room for improvement. Businesses that want higher profits, greater female representation, and a greater portion of women achieving their full potential can create corporate initiatives to achieve such ends. Meanwhile, women who want to be fully prepared for the C-suite can enroll in an EMBA program to acquire the necessary leadership and high-level strategy skills.

Recommended Readings:
The Diversity of the CEO: All Types
Is an Executive MBA Right for You?