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5 Steps Women Need to Follow to Become CEO

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What does it take for a woman to become a CEO? Quite a bit, if the numbers are anything to go by. According to a recent study conducted by the Fortune Knowledge Group (FKG) and the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 firms are led by female CEOs. That’s right. Only 21 of the 500 largest companies in the United States have a woman at the helm.

So, what does it take for women to break into the elusive CEO role? That’s what researchers at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School set out to investigate in a new study.

Four researchers at Oxford Saïd—Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Amanda Moss-Cowan, Michael Smets, and Timothy Morris—completed in-depth interviews with 12 female CEOs of global corporations. The researchers hoped to identify shared characteristics among current female CEOs—and to provide some actionable tips to women in business who aim to reach CEO status.

In the end, the authors of the study, titled “Claiming the Corner Office: Female CEO Career and Implications for Leadership Development,” came up with five tips to help ambitious, talented women land the corner offices they seek.

1. Don’t Hesitate to Ask

According to the study participants’ responses, women may be reluctant to openly own and pursue their professional aspirations. The interviewees encouraged women to “think of themselves as leaders” and “not hesitate to ask” for the opportunities they want. Participants went on to explain that developing this type of confidence is a critical first step in making it to the CEO role.

According to Athanasopoulou, an associate fellow at Oxford Saïd and assistant professor in organizational behavior at Queen Mary University of London, it’s all about taking ownership of one’s career. “Despite an abundance of organizational initiatives aimed at supporting women’s leadership, our research shows that the critical factor in a woman achieving the top job is still active ownership of her own leadership career,” she explained in a press release. “This starts with acknowledging her ambitions and seeing herself as a leader, accepting the work-life compromises she will have to make, and ‘toughening up’ to overcome both personal and external barriers.”

2. Don’t Count on Others

“[Women] shouldn’t wait for others to include them, and pull them along, and take them to the positions they deserve to fill because of the talent and ability they possess,” the study explained. Even having reached the executive role, interviewees noted that they sometimes lack the support and authority needed to accomplish their strategic goals, which is why many female leaders have shorter tenures than their male peers.

To overcome these barriers, women CEOs must rely on self-development instead of formal development programs, which are more readily available to men. This includes actively developing networks that help their careers and seeking out their own mentors.

“Future female leaders are unlikely to be the lonely pioneers our female CEOs were, but this does not automatically translate into more developmental environments for women,” the study authors wrote. “With women being less likely to self-promote or be recognized for their relevant experience, they may be less likely to be selected for mentoring. It is therefore important … that women signal their leadership potential, attract successful mentors, and build new networks.”

3. Play the Long Game

Becoming a CEO doesn’t happen overnight for anyone, but women in particular must overcome many barriers to entry and acceptance. Facing each as it comes while maintaining a big picture view is vital to a female CEO.

“All leaders face difficult work-life trade-offs, but women are often still judged unfavorably for prioritizing career over family. For a woman to recognize her leadership ambition requires making a conscious and effortful choice about what she will become, what she will give up, and the criticisms she will face,” said Amanda Moss-Cowan, research associate at Oxford Saïd and assistant professor of management at the University of Rhode Island College of Business Administration. “While our CEOs took work-life balance issues seriously, they framed work-life decisions like other business decisions: recognize the need to make trade-offs, make a choice, accept the responsibilities that come with it, and move on.”

4. Own Your Career

Female CEOs in the study also talked about having to “toughen up” over time. Because women may lack in confidence and feel under-qualified for senior positions, succeeding in the top role requires that they own who they are and what they do. Women CEOs need to be prepared to take charge of their destiny and leadership journey, as well as the execution of their new role.

“Taking active ownership is critical for female leadership careers, as they pivot on two points: what female leaders become—and what they don’t,” explained the study. “The latter is salient as women face the difficult work-life trade-offs any leader faces, but also often encounter criticism for prioritizing their career over family from those who still endorse traditional gender roles… Therefore, the female CEOs noted that prioritizing their own development over that of others—especially their families—required a particularly self-accepting and effortful choice of what they would become, what they would give up, and the criticisms they would face.”

5. Develop a Unique Leadership Style

Female leaders differ from male leaders, and those differences should be celebrated instead of hidden. Too often, female leaders try to adopt leadership styles that don’t fit who they are. “Even the successful female CEOs in our sample admitted that it could be difficult to feel authentic when adopting some ‘masculine’ leadership behaviors, and that there was a risk that people would react negatively when they did so,” Smets, an associate professor in management and organization studies at Oxford Saïd, explained in the press release. “So what they did was blend the different types of behaviors and translate them into something entirely new—and stereotype-free. Instead of being assertive in one situation and empathetic in another, for example, the leaders in our study found a way to be empathetically assertive.”

To read the full study along with additional recommendations for female CEOs, check out the paper in the Wiley Online Library.

Kelly Vo
Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and topics related to personal development. She has been working in the MBA space for the past four years in research, interview, and writing roles.