In the financial services sector, men still rule the day when it comes to filling executive leadership positions.

A 2016 Oliver Wyman report found that women make up 47% of American financial firms, yet hold only 16% of executive committee positions and 20% of board seats. Among Fortune 1000 companies, 94% of chief executive officers (CEOs) are male; and among the top 100 largest U.S. companies by revenue, just seven employ female CEOs.

(See The Basics of Corporate Structure.)

These numbers can seem discouraging, but for recent college grads and women who are just a few years into their career, a ticket to the C-suite is not out of reach. Executive search firm Korn Ferry recently compiled a study focusing on 57 past and present women CEOs that sheds light on what women in the financial services sector can do to propel themselves to an executive role.

Laying the Groundwork

In the Korn Ferry study, the women CEOs profiled took different routes to the top of the corporate ladder, but frequently shared a common thread in their early roles. At the beginning of their careers, they concentrated on building their credibility and reputation by developing expertise that produced objectively measurable results and correlated closely to their chosen field.

That’s elemental for women in finance who are C-suite focused, says Gina McKague, CEO of McKague Financial in Livonia, Michigan. “Understanding the fundamentals, basic functions and core principles that back the corporation will earn them respect with the underlying positions, as well as with their co-workers,” McKague says. “This will help them position well for the future leadership role they intend to earn.”

Honing technical expertise is a pathway for delivering material results, according to Korn Ferry’s research. It affords women the means to distinguish themselves from their peers and build a reputation for consistent performance.

“It’s extremely important for women to take on roles allowing them to produce measurable metrics as it allows them to use the real cost savings or generated revenue to their advantage, ensuring that they’re on an equal playing field with their male contemporaries,” says Diane McLoughlin, head of Eagle, Americas and chief client officer, Eagle Investment Systems.

The most common way for women to do that was by developing expertise in the STEM fields. Just under 40% of the CEOs surveyed by Korn Ferry earned a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. McLoughlin holds undergraduate dual degrees in mathematics and computer science and a master’s degree in computer information systems, which she calls “the foundation around which I’ve build a career in financial services technology.”

Shannon Spotswood, president of RFG Advisory in Birmingham, Alabama says women tend to refrain from seeking out opportunities where success is quantifiable as a way to avoid failure. But, she says, women need to take the risk and compete in roles where delivering results is measured and promotions, accolades and opportunities are earned.

“Expertise translates into confidence and confidence is key in the C-suite,” Spotswood says. “By developing expertise in their business, they’ll ultimately be leading from a position of strength.”

Navigating the Road to the C-Suite

Knowing what foundational elements matter most in gaining entry to the C-suite is one side of the coin. The other is using that knowledge to tailor your job search and work experiences to forge a path to an executive leadership position in the financial sector. That begins with directing your job search to positions that offer a chance to take the lead.

(See The Best Financial Careers for Women.)

“For women to make the most of learning the nuts and bolts of their company, they need to apply for job openings in operations roles,” McKague says. To get to the top, “women need to find their way into the pipeline early on.”

Your first role—or your next one—should showcase your education and skill set and generate tangible results. “You get management’s attention when you have ideas that can grow the top and bottom line, and/or create efficiencies,” says Lynn Ballou, certified financial planner and regional director for EP Wealth Advisors in Lafayette, California.

Your job search should target positions that reflect the most essential skills or knowledge needed to succeed at the C-level. If you’re in the insurance field, for instance, you'd want to look for positions that develop your understanding of the underwriting process which is central to the business.

Remember that executives don't work in silos. A mentor or advocate can help you make connections that can grow your career. Building the right relationships early in your career isn’t usually part of the job search, but it can be vital as you chart your course. McLoughlin says mentors have been some of her greatest champions in helping her become the only C-level female executive at her firm: “Without some of the mentors I had throughout my career, I might never have been exposed to the opportunities that allowed me to prove myself and move into a leadership position.”

Ballou says to look for mentors within your current firm, as well as externally, and in a variety of businesses. Being mentored by someone outside the financial services sector “can help you become more versatile and pull ideas from other industries that might work in your own.”

The Bottom Line

There isn’t a standard road map for reaching the C-suite. For women in finance, it’s about being proactive and thoughtful about formulating your career path. Most importantly, there’s no room for complacency. “It’s easy to get good at doing something and just stay in the role, but you need to develop expertise,"  Spotswood says, "then move on to the next challenge and keep building your story.”

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