Female CEOs Who Climbed The Corporate Ladder

By Tisa Silver AAA

Few men and even fewer women make it to the role of chief executive officer (CEO) at major corporations. Although there are fewer female CEOs than males (only 13 of America's largest 500 companies were run by women in 2009), the route to the top is not much different.

Unfortunately, it can get lonely at the top for female executives. According to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, women account for just 2% of top executive positions such as president, chairperson and CEO. The study also showed women made up only 6% of lower-level executive positions such as chief financial officer (CFO) and vice president.

According to Catalyst, a women's research group, the number of women in executive roles at Fortune 500 companies has risen. In 1999, women held 12% of corporate officer positions. In 2008, the number had risen to 15.7%. It may not be a dramatic rise, but progress has been made. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi once said, "The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling." To find out how these women made it to the top of the pack, we'll look at 10 businesswomen who accomplished this great feat and see what they have in common.

They Are

Name Title, Company Time Period
Angela Braly Director, President, CEO, WellPoint 2007 - Present
Carly Fiorina CEO, Hewlett-Packard 1999 - 2005
Andrea Jung Chairman, CEO, Avon Products 1999 - Present
Sallie Krawcheck CEO, Citigroup Global Wealth Management Division 2007 - 2008
Ann Mulcahy Chairman, CEO, Xerox 2001 - 2010
Indra Nooyi Chairman, CEO, PepsiCo. 2006 - Present
Irene Rosenfeld CEO, Kraft Foods 2006 - Present
Martha Stewart Chairman, President, CEO, Martha Stewart Omnimedia 1997 - 2003
Margaret Whitman President, CEO, eBay President, CEO, Hewlett-Packard 1998 - 2008
2011 - Present
Oprah Winfrey CEO, HARPO Productions, Inc. 1986 - Present

Among these powerful executives is one doctor, one lawyer, two entrepreneurs and several globally-acclaimed professionals. So what traits allowed these women to climb all the way up the corporate ladder? Read on to find out.

These Women are Very Well-Educated
The first common thread these women share is a college education. Every executive on the list obtained an undergraduate degree from a four-year college. Six of the executives went on to complete post-undergraduate education. Our list includes four executives with MBAs and two executives with graduate degrees in management.

  • Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld obtained her MBA and a doctoral degree in marketing and statistics from Cornell University.
  • Angela Braly, CEO of WellPoint, earned her Juris Doctor (JD) from Southern Methodist University School of Law.
  • eBay's Meg Whitman earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Princeton and went on to receive an MBA from Harvard Business School.
  • Citigroup's Sallie Krawcheck earned an MBA from Columbia University.
  • Both Indra Nooyi and Carly Fiorina earned graduate degrees in management from MIT.

They Reinforced Their Education with Varied Experience
A strong educational background can serve as a good foundation for executive leadership, but education must be reinforced with experience. Each executive on our list served in multiple capacities within her firm or industry before making it to the role of chief executive officer.

Starting at the Bottom of the Ladder
Anne Mulcahy joined Xerox in 1976, as a field representative, and staged a progressive climb to the executive suite. In 1992, she became vice president of human resources, and in 1997 she became chief staffing officer. Mulcahy served as corporate senior vice president before she was selected as the CEO in 2001.

Moving into Roles with Higher Responsibility
Carly Fiorina spent the bulk of her career at AT&T (NYSE:T) before assuming the high-profile position of CEO at Hewlett-Packard. She began her career at AT&T in 1980 as a management trainee. After 16 years, she was appointed president of the consumer products business at Lucent Technologies, an AT&T spinoff. In 1999, Fiorina left Lucent to return to Hewlett-Packard, a company that once employed her as a temporary worker. This time, she joined HP in the role of CEO. She reigned atop Fortune's list of the "50 Most Powerful Women in American Business" from 1998-2004.

Mastering a Line of Business
Before joining Avon, Andrea Jung served in several roles involving women's apparel and cosmetics. She worked as senior vice president at high-end retailer I. Magnin for four years before moving to Neiman Marcus in 1991 as executive vice president. Jung joined Avon in 1994 as president of the Avon U.S. Product Marketing Group. She was then promoted to president and chief operating officer (COO) prior to becoming CEO in 1999.

Finding a Big Break
Perhaps the most publicly chronicled climb was that of news anchor turned media mogul Oprah Winfrey. In 1973, Winfrey started as a local news anchor in Nashville, Tennessee. She transitioned into hosting a Baltimore talk show five years later. Winfrey's big break came in 1984 when she became host of "AM Chicago." Less than two years later, the show was renamed "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The show has been the No. 1 talk show in the U.S. for 22 consecutive seasons. Winfrey serves as chairman and CEO of HARPO Productions.

They have Business and Finance Knowledge
Business and finance knowledge is a cornerstone of success for any CEO. Most of the top female CEOs gained this knowledge long before moving to the helm of their respective companies.

From CEO to CFO
Indra Nooyi served as PepsiCo's CFO before being named CEO in 2006. As CFO, Nooyi was credited with leading several of PepsiCo's restructuring efforts including the initial public offering (IPO) of Pepsi Bottling Group and the separation of Pepsi's restaurants, now known as YUM! Brands (NYSE:YUM), from PepsiCo.

Stockbroker Turned Homemaking Mogul
Martha Stewart was actually a stockbroker for six years before she turned to entrepreneurship after leaving the brokerage firm of Monness, Horstman, Williams and Sidel. Coincidentally, Stewart was convicted and sentenced to prison after lying to authorities regarding her involvement in an insider trading scandal. Since her release from prison, Stewart successfully re-emerged as an author and television show host.

An Equity Analyst Goes for Broke
Sally Krawcheck spent just over a year in her final role as CEO of Citigroup's wealth management business, but only after serving in several financial management roles within the firm. Citigroup recruited her in 2002 to take over as CEO of the firm's brokerage unit, Smith Barney. In 2004, she became Citigroup's CFO. After three years as the top financial manager, she returned to brokerage as the CEO of Citigroup's Global Wealth Management division. Prior to joining Citigroup, Krawcheck was an equity analyst and rose to CEO of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a Wall Street research firm.

They Got on the Path to Success and Kept on Walking
Aspiring executives should look for leadership roles, such as managing a division or a product line. Management experience shows willingness to accept increasing responsibility and can foster leadership skills. Only two members of our list, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, assumed chief executive roles as the result of an external hiring decision. Since many officers are hired from within, it is extremely important to keep moving up. Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying, "Whatever your goal, you can get there if you're willing to work."

The Bottom Line
Our female executives have shown us that the road to the executive suite can be a long one paved with education, experience and knowledge. Aspiring female executives should seek progressive responsibility, hone their communication skills and be mindful that gaps in representation and compensation are being tackled. As Andrea Jung said, "Women like myself, CEOs, can pave the way for more women to get to the top."

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