Only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs, which means that there are 32 of them this year. While the percentage feels insignificant, this is the highest number we’ve yet to see, up from 21 last year. And some women in these positions are surprised to even find themselves there.
As part of their 100×25 initiative, which pushes for female CEOs to lead 100 of the Fortune 500 by 2025, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a grant for Korn Ferry to design and execute a research project that would develop action-oriented initiatives to create a sustainable pipeline of female CEOs.
Researchers secured the participation of 57 female CEOs, from Fortune 1000 companies to large privately held companies, and they conducted a series of in-depth individual interviews with each. They dove into pivotal experiences in each woman’s person history and career progression, and they used Korn Ferry’s executive online assessment to measure key personality traits and other factors that had an impact on their careers. The goal was to unpack women’s success in an effort to help organizations better identify and leverage their highest-potential female leaders. In theory, this should ensure more women success going forward.
They discovered that female CEOs actually worked in a slightly higher number of roles, functions, companies and industries than men leading companies of comparable sizes; they were also four years older, when compared to benchmark data, before becoming CEO. In short: Women expend more energy, effort and years to earn the title of CEO than men.
That said, the researchers also found that, of those 57 women, only five had always wanted to be CEO, three never wanted to be and two-thirds said they never realized they could be CEO until someone told them so.
Another key finding might explain why women said they never wanted to be CEO. For one, the study found that women are more driven by achieving business results and making a positive impact. More than two-thirds of the CEOs the team assessed were motivated by a sense of purpose and believed that the company could have a positive impact on its community, its employees or the world, and nearly one quarter said that creating a positive culture was one of their most important accomplishments.
“While female CEOs were comparably motivated by collaborating with other people, taking on more responsibility, power and scope, the interviews strongly suggest that status, power and reward were not enough to attract women to the role,” the researchers write. “Ambitious women may be hesitant to self-promote, driven more by a sense of purpose and a desire to contribute value and shape culture.”
As for the women who didn’t know they could be? They described themselves as “intensely focused on driving results rather than on their advancement and success.”
“The recognition by a boss or mentor was key to sparking long-term ambition in many of the women,” the researchers explained, referencing one woman who said she’d really just wanted a good job with a good company, and never imagined anything past manager, “forget CEO.”
In eight cases, women didn’t even realize they’d wanted to be CEO until the position was offered to them.
Women with backgrounds in STEM, business, finance or economics made up the bulk of female CEOs in the study (40 percent); they had an advantage as they've been enabled to build their credibility in disciplines with clear, definable outcomes. On the contrary, none of the women started in HR — a field in which women are disproportionately represented.
What does this all mean? Even if you haven't considered it or can't predict it, you could be a CEO some day, too — especially if you’re equipped with one of the aforementioned backgrounds.
The researchers suggest ways in which companies can also take steps to sustain a pipeline of female CEOs. They include identifying early potential, illuminating the path to CEO, ensuring sponsors, articulating roles in terms that engage women and keeping cognizant of the “glass cliff” (the fact that women are more likely to be selected for senior positions in roles associated with states of crisis or high risks of failure).
For more, check out the study’s summary here.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.