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Research: How Female CEOs Actually Get to the Top

Stashed in: Women, CEOs, Business Advice, Awesome, Sexism, HBR, XX, Interesting Research

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Good to know that Meg Whitman is NOT a role model for ambitious girls who want to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.


I did not realize that most women CEOs work their way up to the top of the organization:

Most women running Fortune 500 companies did not immediately hop on a “competitive business track.” Only three had a job at a consulting firm or bank right out of college. A larger share of the female CEOs—over 20%—took jobs right out of school at the companies they now run.  These weren’t glamorous jobs.  Mary Barra, now the CEO of General Motors, started out with the company as college co-op student.  Kathleen Mazzearella started out as a customer service representative at Greybar, the company she would eventually become the CEO of more than 30 years later. All told, over 70 percent of the 24 CEOs spent more than ten years at the company they now run, becoming long-term insiders before becoming CEO. This includes Heather Bresch at Mylan, Gracia Martore at Gannett, and Debra Reed at Sempra Energy.

Even those who weren’t promoted as long-term insiders often worked their way up a particular corporate ladder, advancing over decades at a single company and later making a lateral move into the CEO role at another company.  This was the experience of Patricia Woertz, CEO of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who built her career over 29 years at Chevron.  And it was the experience of Sheri McCoy, who became CEO of Avon after being passed over for the CEO role at Johnson & Johnson, where she worked for 30 years.

The consistent theme in the data is that steady focus wins the day. The median long stint for these women CEOs is 23 years spent at a single company in one stretch before becoming the CEO. To understand whether this was the norm, we pulled a random sample of their male Fortune 500 CEO counterparts. For the men in the sample, the median long stint is 15 years. This means that for women, the long climb is over 50% longer than for their male peers. Moreover, 71% of the female CEOs were promoted as long-term insiders versus only 48% of the male CEOs. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for hopscotch early in women’s careers.

I believe the reason is that most women have to prove themselves over decades of successful work and hang in there until they are the best or only option for promotion. Gender bias makes it difficult for a woman to be given the same street cred when approaching a new opportunity or entrepreneurial venture. Research shows that both men AND women have gender bias against women.  

I've read about that gender bias against women...

...and I note that to reduce that bias we have to call it out whenever we witness it.

It's challenging for women to call it out because of the additional gender bias that women can be either competent or nice, but not both. Call it out and you immediately get placed in the bitch category. C'est la vie.

I don't want to declare such is life, because I've read that misogyny is not human nature:

I will do my best to keep calling out peoples' bad behavior.

My "C'est la vie" was just my sigh. Women are resilient and we learn to work around it. It's not so much that getting ahead is hard for women, we expect and do not shy away from that. The part that can make you a little crazy is that getting ahead can be so easy for many not-so-talented men. There was a great article on this a year or so ago but I'm not sure I have it stashed anywhere. #lifebeforepandawhale?

Life before PandaWhale was like listening to an iPod with the volume turned all the way down.

Even though not-so-talented men can get ahead, the world is increasingly punishing them as a group.

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