In the past half-century, the gender gap in the workplace has narrowed: in 2018, women comprised about 57% of the labor force, up from only one-third in 1950. But though more women than ever are working, a ceiling still exists for those looking to enter the C-suite. Women in corporate leadership are in the minority: In March 2021, only about 6% of S&P 500 CEOs were women. The good news is that, while still rare, it is no longer unthinkable that women can reach the top of the corporate ladder.
Women who have succeeded in executive roles demonstrate a unique skill set, and their strengths depart in some areas from the traditional profile of a leader. For women to rise in the workplace, companies must be willing to hire a diversity of people at entry-level positions, and specifically offer them opportunities to be promoted. As you enter the workforce early on in your career, finding a workplace culture that recognizes your strengths can make the difference between receiving an early promotion or hitting a low ceiling of opportunity.
Will the Company Culture Support Your Development?
As you begin your career, it’s important that join a company that will support your development. While it can be difficult to read a company's culture before accepting a job offer, you can increase your odds of success by asking the right questions in your interview, reaching out to your contacts at the organization, and observing the behavior of people in the office while you are visiting.
Studies show that women are more likely to find pathways to executive roles when their performance is measured objectively, their work is highly visible, and when they work in a workplace where people recognize the contributions of their colleagues. When you interview with a prospective company, ask your interviewer how they measure success. Do they use a precise, empirical system to evaluate the performance of their employees? Performance reviews are subjective by nature, but it’s important that a company recognizes the potential for bias and works to remedy it.
Successful Women Establish Credibility Through Measurable Results
Executives don't just stumble into their roles. Women who are, or who have been, CEOs at Fortune 1000 companies built their careers by setting long-term goals and setting a plan to get there. Part of that journey was establishing their bona fides early, and building on their credibility throughout their career.
Their pathway to success was clear because they tended to choose roles that produced measurable results, so they could point to objective accomplishments. As you search for your first role, ensure that the company you choose has a system to measure your performance objectively, which helps to eliminate the possibility of implicit gender biases when making promotion decisions.
Women Are Promoted When Their Work is Highly Visible
During the interviewing process, ask as many people as you can what their role is within the company, how their work aligns with that of their coworkers, and how the work they do supports the company’s larger goals. Based on their answers, you should be able to infer whether or not their work is visible and valued.
Of course, you may not be able to ask someone directly if they know what projects their colleagues are working on. But throughout your conversation, pay attention to whether or not they reference how they support the rest of their team or other people at the company. If the answer is unclear, it could be a sign that, should you choose to accept the role, your work may also be invisible to your colleagues.
Workers who perform highly visible tasks are more likely to get credit for their contributions. High-potential women demonstrate that they contribute to the core of the business and are seen as being critical to the success of the organization.
Women in Power Networked Across the Company First
Pay attention to how people introduce themselves to you in your interview. Do they emphasize their titles? For example, “I’m the senior manager,” or “I’m the vice president.” Or do they simply say, “I work in finance,” or “I work on the sales team?”
This can help you identify the internal power dynamics of the company. When an organization’s power structure is flatter, it is more likely that employees will see their peers as mentors and collaborators. In this environment, opportunities to contribute across the company are more likely to present themselves regardless of your place in the organizational structure.
When you are in the office, pay attention to what the atmosphere is like: Are people talking naturally or is it eerily silent? Collaboration is often informal: it grows from casual discussions developing into meaningful personal relationships.
Women who have achieved power in the workplace have networked extensively, establishing themselves as trustworthy and knowledgeable in a variety of areas. They were top-of-mind when their colleagues needed help and were asked to contribute to projects across the company.
Women Referred for Opportunities Recognize Work of Others
Reach out to your contacts at the company and ask them how they found out about their role, or ask your HR contact and the hiring manager how they learned about the company. Do they express appreciation for the opportunity to work at the company? Do they specifically reference people who helped them obtain the role, and then supported them as they achieved their goals?
Part of building a strong internal network, people who will advocate and support you once you are in a leadership role, is to recognize the work and accomplishments of others. Women who move into C-suite roles are more likely than their peers to value the contributions of others and to recognize that their success was partially the result of other people.
Learn How Women Executives Navigate Workplace Culture
Like the increase in overall economic contributions from women, many are hopeful that the number of women leading companies will also increase exponentially in future decades. One way to improve your chances of moving into an executive level position later in your career is to learn how women who’ve led companies, or are currently leading companies, have navigated workplace cultures. The kinds of environments that have contributed to their own success have measured their performance objectively, made their contributions visible to others, and given them opportunities to network across the company.