Although women hold a growing number of high profile positions in large corporations, they are still a tiny minority on the top executive floor known as the c-suites where titles often start with the word "chief."
The Wall Street Journal, citing a study by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance women in business, reports that in 2011 women held just 14.1 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies.
Yet in many business schools, women make up half the classes. In accounting, women are 55 percent of new graduates but only 17 percent of partners in accounting firms, according to Joann Cleaver, president of Wilson-Taylor Associates, a Chicago-based strategic communications firm that conducts an annual survey.
Why the low numbers? Many observers cite a variety of factors including the reticence of many women to trumpet their successes.
But the barriers are not insurmountable. Here are a few steps women can take to climb the corporate ladder:
1. Take on the tough assignments
“For women to shine, they have to be willing to take the stretch assignments,” says Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of Lexion Capital Management LLC, a New York-based investment firm. “They have to be willing to take the difficult tests. It’s an easy way to shine in firms that can be bureaucratic.”
2. Use each task to prove yourself
“In my very first job, I looked at every chance as a test,” says Kaplan. “I told myself I had to get a 100. I often found I was teaching things to my manager. If you do that quietly and in a way that makes them look good, they like that. I brought value and I went above and beyond. If something needed to get done fast, I raced. The most important thing for me was operating at my very best.”
3. Get a champion
Find someone in the organization who helps you tell your story and who advocates forcefully for you. “You need to have an ally,” says Lucy Rosen, owner of SmartMarketing Communications in Garden City, New York and founder of Women on the Fast Track, a women’s business networking group. “This is important especially for young women. They need to have somebody on their team, to help them and to guide them. If you don’t have a champion, that’s a downfall.”
Kaplan suggests getting a mentor. “It doesn’t have to be a woman,” she says, adding that you need someone who can “help you navigate career decisions.”
Seek out other women for guidance, support and tips. “Web sites such as Meetup can be great resources to make professional contacts,” says Andrew Schrage, founder of Money Crashers, an online personal finance guide.
5. Study those at the job who’ve worked their way up
“If they are golf players and you don’t play golf, that’s a big mistake,” says Rosen. “Put yourself in a position where you’re going to be noticed. That does not mean sitting behind the registration table at events. If people take off early on Fridays to fish, then you need to know how to hook worms. If you want to really stand out, you need to look to who you want to aspire to and emulate their actions.”