How to break through business world’s ‘glass ceiling’

By Scott Sargis
Published In The Chicago Tribune
July 10, 2002

Though women are still under-represented in the executive ranks, some major victories have occurred recently. Carly Fiorina and Fran Keeth came from different backgrounds to become CEOs of two of America’s top companies. Fiorina left the marketing ranks at Lucent to become CEO of Hewlett-Packard in July 1999. Keeth came up through the finance ranks to become the first woman head of a major U.S. chemical company at Shell Chemical a year ago.

Still, with only six women heading Fortune 500 companies, Corporate America is batting .012. Here are some proven strategies and tactics that can help you improve that average:

  • Join companies that allow you to take risks and grow your career. Small, fast growing industries with a dearth of talent may offer a better chance for your trip up the ladder. Industries such as biotech and nanotechnology have a lot of promise. You might consider taking less money in the short run for a better chance at the executive suites in the long run.
  • Thoroughly investigate companies. Uncover how they value people, diversity, and empower their workers. Identify and approach female executives at Fortune 1000 companies to get their thoughts about various companies and successful strategies. Uncover the diversity of boardrooms from annual reports.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. Fiorina has shaken up HP’s management structure, reorganizing 83 independent product units into six businesses to cut costs and simplify customer relations. Recently she won a bitter battle against William Hewlett to merge the company with Compaq.
  • Seek out and volunteer for crucial assignments. Keeth, like other top chemical executives, has progressed through a series of positions of increasing responsibility. She began her career at Shell in 1970. She advanced from director of federal income taxes to general manager of finance for Shell Oil & Chemical Products. In 1992 she became deputy controller, area coordinator for the East Australasia regions and oil products finance manager. She left Shell for a year in 1996 to become worldwide controller for Mobil Oil. Then she returned to Shell Chemicals as global executive vice president of finance and business systems. This led to CFO and eventually CEO.

The percentages are still against talented women, but with the moves, you can increase your probability of shattering the glass above.