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What Glass Ceiling? Killer Career Advice From Women Who Lead By Example

It's been more than 100 years since 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights, but how much progress have women really made in the workforce?

First, the tough news: Although women make up 49% of the total workforce, they represent 59% of low-wage workers. That number is down from 63% a decade ago, but research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) shows that it will take until 2056 for women and men’s earnings to reach pay parity—if the wage gap continues to close at the same pace it has for the last 50 years.

Another sobering statistic is from a study by Grant Thornton International on the status of women in leadership roles at top private companies worldwide. In 2011, only 20% of those at the helm were women—down from 24% the year before. The world's largest economies—the G7 nations, which include the United States—lag further, with an average of 16% women leaders. In the U.S., only 3.6 percent of of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And the recession may have brought the glass ceiling down a bit further as companies attempting to reverse the "mancession" hired more men.

Instead of bemoaning the numbers, though, Kathy Cloninger, former CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S., is calling on all women to raise awareness and push back. As such, Girl Scouts is spearheading a nonprofit-sector celebration of 2012 as the Year of the Girl. "But what we really need is a Decade of the Girl, because we need to take a giant step, and we need more than a year to do it," declared Cloninger in her book Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts.

To do this, Girl Scout's current CEO Ana Maria Chavez advocates leading by example. "Girl Scouts was founded 100 years ago. We need to update the organization and our model, or else we're going to lose people." From using mobile payment technology to boost sales of those cookies (which totaled $700 million last year) to holding virtual troop meetings via web-conferencing, the organization is furthering its mission to train young girls to be entrepreneurs, managers, and leaders.

Here's a look at what other female leaders had to say about breaking down barriers and achieving success, whether you're clicking into a conference room in Louboutins or pounding the pavement in your Danskos.

Don't Take Your Foot Off The Gas

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, gave a now-famous TED talk on why we have too few women leaders. As a mother of two, she is sympathetic to women feeling like they have to choose between career and family, so she offers this: "Don't leave before you leave. Stay in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal, until the very day you need to leave to take a break for a child—and then make your decisions. Don't make decisions too far in advance, particularly ones you're not even conscious you're making."

Know Yourself

Ellen Kumata of Cambria Consulting says, "Women tend to think more broadly about business issues on both the business and the people sides, including the long term. But they are not thinking broadly about themselves. They do not see their own potential; they do not fully comprehend the politics."

Women who get into and are successful in the C-suite realize that it is perfectly okay to work the high-end corporate politics in order to pull the top team together in ways that advance them to the benefit of the organization.

Go Where the Opportunities Are

Alice Korngold, founder of Korngold Consulting, points out that on nonprofit boards, the person who raises her hand and offers to spearhead an initiative often gets to do it. "There are an abundance of boards with no glass ceilings," she says. "Consequently, nonprofit boards provide extraordinary opportunities for women to engage at the highest levels of leadership—including as board chairs, vice chairs, secretaries of the board, treasurers, and committee chairs."

Channel Emotion

Cofounder and president of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago has proven that her David-sized business is more than worthy of taking on the lumbering corporate gaming Goliaths. Her games Flower and flOw both achieved commercial success and critical acclaim with nary a weapon or zombie corpse warlord in sight. Flower is all about flow—the concept, not the game—which is based on a psychological theory of engagement that's gaining traction in design circles. "When I was at the USC School of Cinematic Arts media program, we were taught a process that focuses on starting with the emotion, as opposed to the mechanics," says Santiago.

Don't Be Afraid To Scrap

Linda Chavez-Thompson, former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, was called many names in her 30-year tenure in the labor movement—and "pushy broad" was one of the nicer ones. "I wear it like a badge of honor. Back in Texas I'd be in meetings where I'd cuss like a sailor. I didn't have a choice: How much you could take and dish out was the measure of others' respect for you. Remember, I was dealing with six-foot-tall, 250-pound Texans who smoked big cigars. I couldn't let them push me around. While a few of my union brothers didn't like me, they sure did respect me."

Take Charge of Office Politics

Kimberly Davis, president of JPMorgan Chase Foundation, finds that niche cultures within the overall corporate culture can be pockets of innovation, if you play your cards right, in this 30 Second MBA video.

Get in the Trenches

Pat Button doesn't ask anyone on her team to do anything she wouldn't do herself. The chief nursing officer of Zynx Health admits she’s very self-motivated but she also enjoys working as part of a team and tends to hire people who have expertise she lacks. "I have very high standards from how the content is developed to how the muffins are baked. What people have said about me very consistently is that I have high expectations, but they are reasonable and they are clear. For me, it is important for people to know where they stand but to do that in a thoughtful way."

Take Care of Your People

Eve Blossom started Lulan Artisans as a for-profit, social venture to helps artisans sell their expertise, textiles, and other goods. Not only does the company teach their artisan partners how negotiate fair trade prices for their work and how to stay successful in business long-term, Lulan also implements tailored benefits programs for each community where it partners with artisans. Whether artisans need education in their communities or eye care, Lulan finds a way to help.

Just Say No

There is one little word that packs a big punch, but many women have a hard time deploying: No. Yet entrepreneur and CEO Margaret Heffernen says almost any communication—however negative—is preferable to silence. "However unpleasant the information or feedback may be, it allows others to make informed decisions in their own time. Silence, by contrast, leaves them stuck, unsure when or whether to move, unclear whether action is needed or not. What I learned from my television days is that when you tell people the truth, in a timely fashion, you show them respect. And that's how you earn it too."

Separate Public and Private Life

In an age of chronic oversharing on social media, it's hard to know where to draw the line. Amber Mac admits it's still hard to refuse a "friend" invite that makes its way to her personal Facebook account.

She strikes a balance by never sharing any photos on that page she wouldn't be comfortable showing publicly. "I also refuse to broadcast my phone number or address with anyone, and I more or less just assume that privacy settings won't help me that much if someone in my network decides to breach my trust."

Take Risks

Kim Jordan, cofounder, CEO and president of New Belgium Brewing Company, offers this bit of advice on when to take the lead and when to let someone else bear the risk.

For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Sit With Me]

Add New Comment


  • Una Hodgkins

    Dear ladies,

    Have you ever heard of the "Equal Childcare Act"? or the "Father's Involvement Glass Ceiling"? No? I though not.

    The reason that women have not reached equality in pay is because men have not sought - or rather been compelled! - to take a 50% share in the joys of childcare and household management. 

    The law discriminates against women in the care of children: any woman who leaves her child will be prosecuted for abandoning them. But the father who walks out on his child, leaving sole responsibility to the mother, will not. We need to change the law.

  • Felena Hanson

    More and more women... like me... are jumping out the "corporate machine" and starting their OWN business.  While it's hard work I don't feel it's any riskier than leaving your fate up to someone else. 

    I'm not the only one... American Express recently released a study showing
    the number of women-owned businesses grew by 50 percent, well above the 34
    percent increase in the total number of businesses.  The study shows there are more
    than 8.1 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. with annual sales of $1.3
    trillion and employing 7.7 million people. 
    Further, the report calculates there are nearly 1.1 million women-owned
    businesses in California — up 54.2 percent from 1997 — as of 2011.

  • Botta

    What Glass Ceiling? You ask? Women, have not made such great strides in leadership when you consider that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 is nearly 50 years old - and we still have not achieved parity or “equal pay” which is the law! In fact women ONLY make .77 cents to each dollar that men make for the same job, and it decreases significantly for minorities. Women’s wages have increased just half a penny on the dollar for the past four decades. At this rate it will have taken women 100 years to reach pay parity with men - if that is not enough evidence to make you believe that there is not only a ceiling but a distinct barrier, then what is?

    Maybe it's time that we stop patting ourselves on the back, and really get to work, starting by evaluating better solutions, practices and radical approaches to making sure more women attain leadership roles - because frankly, Feminism and the "equality" based belief system that it engendered has failed us. Ideas anyone?

    Maria Botta
    Creative Consultant

  • LydiaDishman

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. The headline belies the content of the article. I am indeed sobered by the fact that women don't receive equal pay, I put that statistic right up at the top because I feel it is important to keep building awareness until things change. However, I don't think that anyone is back patting by sharing tactics that have worked to earn respect and leadership positions in a variety of industries. Women need to support each other and your call for ideas is a step in that direction and an extension of what I was trying to put forth in this article.

  • Sheri Jenkinson

    Thank you for sharing this article.  There is definitely a need to find new ways to engage women and men in conversations that will make a difference in how we engage and interact in the workplace.  The rules are changing and this is an exciting time to get involved and shape the changes that we would like to see.

  • johnlaity

    I whole heartily agree with Ana.

    As Co-Founder of the British Antarctic Microlight Expedition (, I am privileged to have been able to recruit Cpl. Hannah Campbell to our 20 "person" team. 
    Hannah will take on the world's toughest environment, flying at 10,000 ft in (average) -30 degree temperatures. 

    Hannah is a serving Soldier, Mother and below-the-knee-amputee following a mortar attack in Basra, Iraq. 

    Most people focus on Hannah's "disability" and the fact that she is a woman injured in the front line. (I have just been guilty of that here). However, Hannah made our team because she is an enthusiastic and able pilot. During selection we noticed that she was also a natural leader and team player, whom others gravitated towards for advice. She is "Marathon Fit" and is running on her blades in the London Marathon. 
    If you are like Hannah, then nothing can or will stop you. 

  • Diane Garnick

    As the CEO of a women owned and operated asset management firm, Clear Alternatives, I commend you for writing such a timely and important piece.  Finance still tends to be dominated by men, causing many women to complain.  Rather than add to the chorus of what is "wrong" about the lack of gender diversity, we are contributing to the solution by creating an environment where woman thrive.  The result?  Consistent investment returns (making clients happy) and empowered employees (making all of us happy). 

  • Jacqueline Gleason

    Diane, I am the Director of Technology and Infrastructure PM for a very successful hedge fund.  I have a proven track record of reducing risk, saving money, and increasing the ease of investor due diligence. Did I mention although my firm has been in existence for over 25 years I had to write our maternity leave policy when I had my first child in June 2011?  I'd love to speak to you about an opportunity at Clear Alternatives.  Find me here:

  • Suchitra Mishra

    Thanks, Lydia for a very matter of fact post with great resources. Identified with all the points and enjoyed reading this.