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From Plodding to a Quantum Leap

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a learning and leadership community representing 12,400 members in 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at

A recent Fortune 500 report headline touts the stat: 33 female CEOs now sit in Fortune 500 ranks. I applaud progress — that’s more women than ever. Unfortunately, a more sobering statistic is that those 33 female CEOs represent 6.6% of all CEOS. That is about 43.4% too low, if we are striving for 50%. 

When I was a young girl, I wanted to be a CEO. I didn’t have many female CEO role models, though. Today, there still are far too few female CEO role models for young girls. Even as our societal demographics continue to shift, the seats of power within global companies remain stuck decades
in the past. 

Approximately three out of four women (74%), want to become executives early in their careers, according to Egon Zehnder’s Leaders & Daughters Global Survey of 7,000 women in seven countries on five continents. 

After reading that statistic, I want to know: What happens to change that attitude? From my own experience, there are potholes in the road to the executive suite. NEW research shows that just a few issues across the board cause women to leave companies in droves. Taking just a few key actions could help them stay: 

• Confront bias. Combine a lack of female role models in executive management with the sense of isolation that can come from being the only woman in the room — add in a lack of sponsorship — and you have a recipe for female leaders heading to the exits. Only 36% of women surveyed agree there is minimal favoritism within their company. The similar-to-me bias, unless addressed head on within corporate culture, means many executives will hire and promote candidates with similar interests, backgrounds and experience to them. 

• Offer transition support/career pathing. Only half of women say they receive support when they accept a new challenge or job. Men’s perception of support from peers and managers ranks higher at 63%. While six out of 10 women say their supervisor entrusts them with a range of assignments that help prepare them for their next role, the remaining 40% are not receiving the corporate stretch roles and breadth of experience necessary to place them in contention for positions of higher responsibility and authority. This leaves women either stagnating in current roles, feeling passed over or promoted without sufficient development or support. 

• Modernize work schedules. While the world has changed dramatically from the years when men worked and women stayed at home, work schedules have not, to the detriment of women with children especially. As Melinda Gates wrote, “We’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads.”  

Progress for women at the board level is also slow. This year’s board representation numbers for the Fortune 500 show a trend — the same small group of women are being tapped for multiple boards. Seven women serve on four Fortune 500 boards. Thirty-four women serve on three. 

My organization’s research shows a female leadership crisis: senior women are heading for the exits at a far higher rate than men. Female higher-level managers, executives and C-suite members leave their jobs nearly four times as often as men (26.9 vs. 7.3%).

California took the lead to legislate greater equality on boards, which should help get more qualified women into C-suite positions. Board equality legislation is also moving through the
legislature in Illinois, and being considered in New Jersey as well as a few other states.

As institutional investors push for greater diversity on boards and C-suites because of the business case for it, I think we’ll see more progress. 


Photo credit:  austin-schmid-unsplash

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