Breaking the Glass Ceiling in the C-Suite

06/16/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Women make up the majority of college graduates in the United States and many other developed countries, accounting for more than 40 percent of the workforce worldwide. Despite these numbers, they comprise only a small fraction of c-suite executives and high-level managerial positions. Part of the problem stems from a small pool of female executives to choose from, resulting in women holding less than 15 percent of Fortune 500 executive officer positions, according to a recent Fortune article.

As former CMO of a Fortune 100 company, I have encountered many dynamic female leaders throughout my career. Women I'd be honored to have join me in the boardroom any day of the week. Women are natural leaders, decisive and able to match wits against any man, any time. So what can we, as business leaders, do to bring more women and more diversity to the c-suite?

Address the Disconnect Early

Gender disparity in the workplace has been an issue for the past thirty years, but while we've been focusing on the workplace, we neglect the origin of the problem -- business school. Recent studies show women are still underrepresented in business programs, both in terms of the student body and faculty. The proportion of female students rarely exceeds forty percent. Schools such as Harvard, London Business School, and Wharton, to name a few, have made strides to narrow the gap, but there's plenty of work to be done. At Harvard's executive education programs, 24 percent of students are women, up from 18 percent in 2009, at MIT females make up 17 percent of the executive program. Wharton has less than 50 percent of women enrolled in their executive leadership program.

While it's true you don't need an MBA to make it into the c-suite, business schools are the most common path to get there. I am a firm believer that women bring an incredible skill set to the table, like being able to see the bigger picture, thinking outside the box and implementing an unparalleled sense of teamwork. So, bring them into the mix, as early as you can. Involving your female employees in your company's entire process is a surefire way to ensuring success and eventually, a key to the c-suite.

Ceiling is Believing

Hillary Clinton made the phrase "18 million cracks" famous during her 2008 presidential run, but are women cracking, or shattering, the glass ceiling in the boardroom? In 2014, there were a record number of female CEOs, twenty-six to be precise, running Fortune 500 companies -- that's less than 15 percent. We all recognize high-profile CEOs such as Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, General Motors' Mary Barra (who was also named one of the world's most powerful women by Forbes), IBM's Ginni Rometty and PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, but there is room for more. These female business leaders prove the corner office isn't the 'good old boys club' it once was.

How can companies help close the gap? Here are some examples. Hyatt Hotels has embarked on a multi-year mission to give women parity with men at all levels of the company, including upper management. In 2014, they added a second woman to its 12-member board. They're not just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, or to be politically correct. For them, it's simple math. Women account for more than 80 percent of overall travel decisions, so the $4.2B company is turning to their female employees - who make up half of their 95,000-person workforce, to help meet the needs of their customers. The company is using their internal assets to keep their customer's happy and in turn, their employees happy because they see the fruits of their labor and are encouraged to participate - just like their male counterparts. Other companies like Kimberly-Clark Corp remade its workforce in order to more closely resemble its predominately female customer base and as a result, increased the number of internal promotions of women to director level, or above, from 19 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2013. McDonald's, one of the U.S.'s top 3 employers, also saw the number of female general managers in the U.S. jump from 13 percent to 38 percent in four years.

Recently, I spoke with Christie Hefner, daughter of Hugh Hefner and former CEO/Chairman of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., for All Business with Jeffrey Hayzlett on CBS Radio's She held the record for being the longest-serving Chairman and CEO of a publicly traded company (20 years, 1988-2008). During that tenure, she restructured the company with highly successful electronic and international expansions, making Playboy the first national magazine to go online. Hefner was named to the Fortune's list of "Most Powerful Woman" for three years and when she left Playboy in 2009, to pursue other opportunities with political and business organizations, over 40 percent of her executives were women. Here is a perfect example of a female executive with great, progressive vision moving a company forward while taking the time to mentor up and coming executives, helping close the gender gap.

Mad Men Only Looks Good On TV

Let's face it, Mad Men was a hell of a show, but not even Don Draper's good looks can stop the avalanche sweeping the c-suite. Long gone are the days where women's professional options were limited to the role of secretary. Now, women are empowered to speak their minds, ask for promotions, and to voice what they want. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In challenges readers to change the conversation from what women can't do to what they can do, and has served as a rallying cry for women to work together to create a more equal world. What got my attention? This isn't a book about complaints, it's about taking action, with practical advice and real solutions -- basically, break down barriers and get the job done.

Here's my advice for women ready to take on the c-suite:

  • Stay true to yourself -- Always be willing to remain on the edge and be YOU. It got you this far, trust yourself, you're doing something right.
  • Tune out the self-doubting noise - There will always be noise, leave your doubts at the door. Be decisive, and relentless. Be part of the change you want to see in the world.
  • Obstacles are temporary - Life is full of them and they will always be there, but they can be opportunities to think outside the box and see things differently.
  • Trust your gut - It'll never lead you astray. Sometimes your instincts are your best resource.

As a husband, father and now grandfather of a beautiful little girl, I've done my part, and will continue to do so, to help empower women. I always tell my employees, don't be afraid to be assertive and authoritative. I have some very bold and brassy female employees and I love that. They're never afraid to speak up, call it as they see it and roll up their sleeves in order to get the job done. If you have those types of employees, you're headed in the right direction when it comes to parity and equality in the workplace. I'm not going to be confused with Gloria Steinem any time soon, but credit where it's due.