Women have taken the workplace by force in recent decades as their workforce participation rose from less than 33% in 1948 to almost 57% in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Impressive, but you’d never know it by looking at a list of who’s who among c-suite business leaders.
In corporate America’s highest ranks, women executives are outnumbered by men at a rate of almost 17 to 1. According to a Morningstar report, more than half of the companies studied couldn’t boast a single female executive officer. Even advancements showcase just how far women have to go in conquering the business world. While the number of women helming Fortune 500 companies is an all-time high of 41, they account for only 8.2% of the category’s CEO total.
Women, however, face unique obstacles to achieving c-suite level roles. In the 2021 YPO Global Gender Equality Survey, 47% of female chief executives at companies with revenues between $10 million and $1 billion said cultural expectations for their gender were an obstacle. Only 2% of their male counterparts answered the same.
One thing is certain, women aren’t being held back from c-suite leadership roles for lack of ambition. According to Gallup’s “Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived,” report, 45% of employed women have aspirations to become a CEO or hold a senior management position. Just 54% of men said the same, a miniscule margin compared to the actual c-suite gender gap.
So, what is keeping women from the c-suite? We asked three successful female business leaders for advice to fellow female professionals hoping to make it to the top.
Meet our c-suite leaders:
- Karen Sage
Karen Sage is Syncron’s Chief Marketing Officer, responsible for the company’s global marketing, communications, enablement, and go-to-market efforts. She started her career as an engineer having invented the NETSYS Performance tools at NETSYS Technologies, Inc., which was acquired by Cisco in 1996, and she has helped several companies successfully launch disruptive new categories, accelerate revenue growth, and build leadership brand awareness and reputation. Prior to joining Syncron, Sage was the CMO at Transplace, MercuryGate International and Sciquest (now called Jaggaer).
- Anna Gomez
As Global Chief Accounting Officer and International Chief Financial Officer of IRI Worldwide, Anna Gomez directs the global accounting, audit, tax, payroll, finance systems, and facilities functions of the company. Prior to IRI, Gomez was the chief financial officer of Leo Burnett Group, overseeing the financial strategies and operations of various agencies owned by Publicis Groupe across North America.
- Kelly Mohr
After earning her MBA, Kelly Mohr successfully worked as a controller for companies including the Nu-Era Group and Clearent, where she was responsible for all aspects of the monthly close, financial analysis, and monthly financial statement package preparation. Since 2004 she has served as chief financial officer for Koplar Communications, which includes entities from broadcast media, restaurants, technology and property management and development through an entrepreneurial spirit and energy.
Too many can’t envision women taking on greater roles
“One hidden bias I have seen quite a bit in my career is that many do not consider women outside the position they are currently doing, especially when they are doing it well,” Sage explained. “Most people are not even aware they have such a view limitation where they inherently don’t envision women taking on different or bigger roles. But this bias does exist and because of it women’s growth opportunities are certainly underdeveloped and unpursued.
It often takes the ambitious woman herself to see where she can grow. In general, to move upward, most women must take on themselves the task of thinking what her next growth steps might be and the added burden to make it happen. Men often are simply considered for promotions and open roles they might need to grow into; women, on the other hand, must push themselves to even be considered. I think the outcome of this bias has a significant downward gravitational push on a woman's career growth.”
Mohr feels there could be a variety of reasons more women don’t reach c-suite leadership roles, including workplace bias.
“Perhaps we are not all about it without consequence,” Mohr said. “Perhaps we are smarter with our boundaries and priorities. However, the other half is that we are still viewed as the softer side. The world has not yet let us determine what leadership looks like as a female. The global microscope is tight with overanalysis of our behaviors, emotions and decisions. We will change this dynamic but only as we get opportunities, and build these models with other women of integrity and balance.”
But there is hope biases can change
“I will say I have met many enlightened women and men who recognize that this bias exists and make a point of correcting,” Sage said. “In essence, they make extra consideration to look at overlooked women when they consider candidates for open positions and opportunities.”
Women can promote their advancement by supporting each other
“Every day I am surrounded by strong, successful women who have risen to their roles in the C suite,” Gomez said. “These women recognize that their place is hard-fought, and that every single work and effort they have exerted has brought them to their well-established place in the company. I really believe that women need more advocates, to help them to see and be seen, to help them get the recognition they deserve.
We always talk about mentorship – something I believe in so strongly. I wouldn’t be here without each and every mentor I’ve had in all stages of my career. But advocacy is going one step further. We often see it as the opportunity we are given when a male or female boss mentions your name at a meeting or gives you kudos for a job well done. If we don’t take mentorship a step further, we fall short.”
And ignoring the naysayers
“I’m not sure if what I am about to tell you is an obstacle or a blessing, but I have always been told I cannot or should not aspire to a whole variety of things (degrees of education, career positions, subject matters, solving a problem in a different way, etc.),” Sage said. “What happens when I am told I cannot or should not do something because of who I am is that I then put a full court effort into making it happen. Even my 5th grade math teacher told me I should not pursue math because I wasn’t logical enough. So, what did I do with this advice— I got my undergraduate degree in math and then went on to pursue engineering.”
“While I can say that the cynics of my personal, educational, and career growth ambitions have been a source of frustration, they have also given me the gift of never accepting that I cannot do something and to do everything in my power to prove that person wrong. Don’t ever accept that you are not right for something you aspire to be.”
Reflecting on her experience, Sage offers the following advice:
“There will be a slew of naysayers who will tell you various reasons why you should not aspire to your dreams. They will tell you that getting to the C-suite is not worth it; you will sacrifice too much away from your family; they will even tell you don’t have what it takes, the stamina, personality, drive, smarts, etc. to be successful, or that you will be miserable at that level saying that it's lonely at the top; they will tell you it’s too cut throat and you’re not like that, that the role changes you. Ignore. Really, ignore all of that bad advice.”
Confidence and integrity will take aspiring women far
“I didn’t start out my career hoping to rise to the C Suite,” Gomez explained. “I moved to the US at a time when it was very difficult for me to find a job, not having had a US education or any US work experience. I set my mind to working hard and establishing transparent and genuine relationships with my superiors and co-workers. As years went on, I was able to find my place and became comfortable with the efforts I had put in that were allowing me to progress in my career.”
Gomez offers the following advice to fellow businesswomen:
“I guess my advice would then be to work hard and be a strong advocate for yourself. Maintain your strong sense of self identity and confidence, because as you rise towards leadership roles, your decisions will affect people and lives and reputations. You must be accountable to yourself and your integrity must reflect who you are and what you will always believe in, no matter what.
Honesty and integrity are definitely characteristics that I believe helped me to gain the support I needed to progress in my career. I also think humility and vulnerability have helped me achieve my goals. Being vulnerable is difficult, especially in the corporate world. But putting yourself out there, without any guarantee of success helps you to see the bigger picture.
Being yourself, bringing your skills and weaknesses to the table — it gets people to trust that you are genuine and committed. And then being humble enough to know that not everything will work out in your favor….that to me is key. When you focus too much on success, you lose the essence of why you are doing what you are doing. You are here/there because you love what you’re doing. You are here/there because you are passionate about what you believe in. Everything else will fall into place.”
Sage also advises a strong sense of self.
“I don’t think I have met a single C-level executive who bemoans their journey to the top, or being on the top, or feels like they weren’t missing some trait that everyone assumed was essential to reach the position,” Sage said. “Shocker: almost everyone at all levels sacrifices too much away from their family regardless of their level.
Getting to the C-suite and staying in such a leadership position is an exhilarating journey and for those that have the ambition, the willingness to listen yet balance what they hear with their own internal compass, and the ability ignore their own internal imposter signals will relish the path to C-suite and the continuous improvement and learning discipline that it will take to keep them in the C-suite over time.”
Outside support helps propel women to success
“I had a very strong support system (aka, my husband) and my children grew up knowing they would be lucky enough to reap the benefits of having two working parents,” Gomez said. “I held quite a bit of guilt inside whenever I’d be absent from family events because I was off traveling somewhere or doing a system implementation. But when people who love you are supportive, it lifts up that burden and helps you to soar even higher.
I think most women also have a hard time stepping into leadership roles when their male counterparts are not supportive. I have been so fortunate to have supervisors and mentors (men and women) who have taken me along with them and taught me what I know now.”
A changing workforce means changing obstacles
“I think the biggest obstacle for me was time. Time to do everything so well while maintaining relationships and raising a family,” Gomez added. “Like everyone else, I had to prioritize my career and focus on it, more than I probably should have. But I also entered the workforce at a time when being physically present at the office was a must. Times have changed so drastically, I often wonder whether I would have done things differently if given the chance to work remotely, take time off work to take my children to their school activities, etc. I don’t think I would have.”
Don’t stand in your own way
“One of the greatest obstacles was the fear within myself that I was not good enough,” Mohr said. “I believe that we need to surround ourselves with a positive female squad to work out these fears and prepare ourselves for growth. We can do this our way. We have strengths that are valuable, and in fact in high demand. We need to remember that and believe in ourselves.”
Mohr leaves us with, “Be Kind to yourself. REALLY. You are going to face obstacles and tests and you will have to be better. You need to protect yourself with positive boundaries and guardrails. There are certain parts that are off limits during this rise. Keep it that way.”