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Gender Gap

How Women Can Finally Bridge the Gender Gap in the C-Suite

The C-suite may be the top, but the pipeline that will get young women there has plenty of leaks. What's your company doing to plug them?
How Women Can Finally Bridge the Gender Gap in the C-Suite
Image credit: wildpixel | Getty Images
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Prime Time TV and Radio Show Host, Author, Speaker
8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a societal shift for women in diverse categories ranging from media and entertainment to business. The #MeToo movement has brought an air of change that has touched almost every industry. But, for all the progress women have made in the last 100 years (since winning the vote), there’s still plenty left to do to advance their roles and visibility in business.

This applies in particular to the C-suite.

Related:  3 Ways Men Can Help Close the Gender Gap

In 2018, the New York Times reported that the already small proportion of women leading the largest companies had become even smaller -- 25 percent smaller. When PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi stepped down as CEO last October, only 24 women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies remained. While other C-suite roles have a stronger female presence -- chief financial officer, 12.6 percent; chief information officer; 20 percent, globally; and chief human resources officer, 55 percent, the CEO slot seems still to be missing.

What companies can do

Why is that? And what can companies do to create more parity in their highest rank?

One move to start with requires taking a good look in the mirror. Companies should make an honest assessment of where they are right now. Reason: Part of being a good leader, especially a hero leader, is being honest with yourself and recognizing the areas where you can improve -- not to mention, defining what your values are.

In my book, The Hero Factor, I talk about the values I once jotted down as requisites for what I call The Hero Club. When I completed that list, I made some changes regarding who was allowed to become a member. Specifically, I looked to include a wider net to bring in leaders of smaller businesses like mine, and to outline how leaders could maintain an upward trajectory toward operational excellence.

Still, I hadn't yet included values. When I did get them down on paper, the result was the first iteration of the pledge I suggest all members make as they start their hero journey.

Related: Getting to The Root of the Tech Industry's Gender Gap

I defined the values on my list as those that ensure membership in the "club" is as inclusive as possible -- of gender but other factors as well. I took a hard look in the mirror myself and asked, "What do I want this organization to look like?"

I’ve told my team many times that whenever we do events and conferences,  I don’t want to see all-male panels or speaker lineups. I want to see a diverse group of people imparting to attendees various types of knowledge, differing perspectives and varied points of view. Those are the values I want reflected in my company.

Yet I’m just a drop in the bucket.

There are still many factors that hinder women from reaching the C-suite, such as gender bias (conscious or unconscious), lack of opportunities and inflexible organization cultures. While many companies claim they’re highly committed to gender diversity, has this translated to meaningful progress?

The following numbers tell a different story:

  • The percentage of female directors in the Russell 3000 increased from 10 percent in 2008 to a mere 18 percent in 2018 -- most of that increase taking place after 2013.
  • Since 2012, the Russell 3000 has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of female CEOs, but despite that increase, only 5 percent of those companies had a female CEO in 2018.
  • Close to 46 percent of women in the top five positions ranked either fourth or fifth in pay levels, compared to 33 percent of the top five male executives.

While these numbers may seem appalling, there is progress being made. Here are three things I believe women should keep in mind as they climb the corporate ladder:

What women can do right now.

Never stop learning: Regardless of what line of business they're in, or rung in the corporate ladder they're on, women need to continue learning as much as possible. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, but in order to get ahead, they need to push through. They must be willing to embrace change and accept risks, two tasks made easier by continued learning.

An example is Kelly Kramer, chief financial officer at Cisco, who began her tenure back in 2012. Previously, she had been the CFO of GE Healthcare Systems; and prior to making the move to Cisco, she spotted something that made her decision easier – a clear path of succession. She joined Cisco as a senior vice president of corporate finance and three years later was promoted to CFO.

By taking the leap from healthcare to technology, she was able to embrace change and accept the risks that came with the position. Continued learning is what gives people a leg up from the competition. Just because a topic that interests you is not in your industry or wheelhouse doesn’t mean you stop learning.

Branch out: How many times do we tell ourselves, "I didn’t go to school for that"? Life has a funny way of taking us in several directions, some more expected than others. Former ABC Daytime executive, Pat Fili-Krushel became the CEO of WebMD and the chairman at NBCUniversal News Group, and now is CEO at the Center for Talent Innovation.

If that doesn’t spell "branch out," I don’t know what does. I’m all for pushing, and sometimes shoving, boundaries. Stretch out of your comfort zone; that’s how you grow. 

That was certainly the case for Fili-Krushel. Her positions were in very male-dominated industries, but she realized the opportunities she could seize. She understood that with every echelon you climb, the more skill sets you either acquire or dust up. Not to mention the fact that the moves she made helped her bridge the gaps in her experience and enhance her expertise as a leader.

Don’t shy away from tough assignments: Once again, it’s human nature to fear the unknown, but shying away from things because they’re tough is a killer. Mary Petrovich is currently chairman of the board at AxleTech. In 2016, she was named to the 100 Most Influential Women list by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Earlier in her career, she was put in the middle of a very tough assignment -- working in finance at Chrysler, when Lee Iacocca was trying to pull the company out of bankruptcy. That would’ve frightened many, but Petrovich stuck it out and decided to remain in the epicenter of a difficult and public situation.

Petrovich is often asked for advice on her rise up the corporate ladder. And her advice is: “You need to think of being the best -- period. Women should shoot to be the best, regardless of race or sex."

Speaking of the best ...The C-suite may be "the best," but the pipeline that will get you there has plenty of leaks.

Research by McKinsey showed that women fall behind early on in their careers and continue to lose ground as they progress. According to a study from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, women make up 47 percent of entry-level hires but are 18 percent less likely to be promoted to managerial positions, compared to their male counterparts.

What companies can do right now.

Companies can implement actions right now to plug these pipeline leaks and help bridge the gender gap even before women reach the C-suite level. Those actions include:

  • Implement required training about unconscious bias at every level of the organization.
  • Direct senior leadership to set up goals for hiring and promoting women.
  • Require effective mentoring and sponsorship programs, allowing employees to seek career-advancement advice.
  • Focus on key promotions and the development of managers to become strong candidates, to further diversity.

Related: Why It Will Take More Than Two Centuries to Close Gender Pay Gap at the Workplace

Don’t be fooled into thinking diversity is only a "racial" or "gender" issue. These categories are just the most glaring. In order to help bridge the gap, companies must do their part to ensure they hire, cultivate and promote women in order to create a more diverse, stronger and more balanced workforce. 

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