Since America’s infancy, women have played a vital role in the success of big business, despite rampant gender discrimination. While there’s no doubt that women have made great strides in the corporate realm, numerous stereotypes and discriminatory practices still exist.
But when you do the math, you’ll see that less than 4% of America’s largest companies are run by women. Add on the stat that women held only about 16.1% of board seats on Fortune 500 companies in 2011, and it becomes clearer that U.S. businesses still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in the top ranks.
Fortunately, there’s a strong pipeline of qualified women who are already in leadership roles or are preparing for high-powered corporate positions. And there are companies, like Alcoa (NYSE:AA), that are leaders in the area of workplace diversity.
Recently, InvestorPlace had the opportunity to speak with four dynamic businesswomen about so few women serving on public company boards of directors. Each seasoned executive shared advice on what women can do to climb the proverbial corporate ladder, break through the so-called glass ceiling and secure a high-powered board seat.
Parts of the wisdom they shared can be applied to other aspects of one’s career. While their advice was geared to women, men also can glean information pertinent to their future success.
Build Your Bio With a Board Seat in Mind
Jan Babiak serves on the finance and audit committees of Walgreen‘s (NYSE:WAG) board and also chairs the audit committee for Logica, a FTSE 250 company headquartered in the U.K.
Babiak’s aspirations to serve on large corporate boards took root early on in her career. While in her 30s and 40s, she made decisions that put her on the right path. Babiak reminds women to remember that a board bio is much different than what’s needed for other executive positions. “Boards aren’t only interested in what you’ve done within the past 24-months, they want to know what you’ve done in the past 24 years.”
Long before she was appointed to a corporate board, Babiak interviewed more than 40 men and women who served on boards, researched companies and chose jobs and promotions based on what would bring her “the best leverage to sit on future boards.”
Start Your Career at the Right Company
Cohen stresses the importance of working for companies that invest in the future career success of their employees. She recommends that women take part in leadership and mentoring programs that companies may offer. “People cannot always define their goals without seeing someone who has gone ahead of them. By and large, people are following the paths that they can envision because they’ve seen it.”
Cohen has another piece of advice for women just beginning their careers: “Choose a company where the CEO has all daughters.”
Develop Strong Financial Acumen
Paula Lovell is past chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She’s also founder and CEO of national public relations firm Lovell Communications.
The bottom line is always top of mind for corporations, so it’s imperative that all members of a company’s governing body are well-versed in the organization’s financials. “Anyone who wants to serve on a board should not only know how to read a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement, but be aware of how all decisions impact a corporation financially,” Lovell said.
She also notes that in addition to heeding textbook advice, anyone who wants to pursue a corporate board seat should understand that a board member is more than a figurehead. “It’s important to be have a passion for the company because [serving on a board is] more time consuming that it used to be.”
Define Your Goals and Develop Diverse Experience
Patricia Russo is lead director for General Motors (NYSE:GM), and she chairs the carmaker’s compensation and benefits committee. She’s also a member of Alcoa’s governance and nominating committee, and its executive committee. Additionally, she serves on the boards of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), KKR (NYSE:KKR) and Merck (NYSE:MRK).
“First, know what you want to do,” Russo said. She advises women with ambitions to lead companies to obtain operations experience. “Jump into jobs with quantifiable results where you can demonstrate your capabilities by having set goals and achieving those goal.”
For women who aspire for an executive-level job at a Fortune 500 company — such as chief marketing officer, corporate council, vice president of accounting, etc. — she says they not only need to excel in their discipline, but to “branch out to get experience in other fields and gain a different perspective.”