Pathway to the C-Suite — A Business Guide for Women

Three smiling businesswomen.

Though the number of women and men on the corporate ladder is almost equal, the United States faces a distribution issue: there are not many women at the top. According to a 2019 report by Korn Ferry, around 45 percent of employees at the country’s largest companies are women, but women still hold only 25 percent of the five critical C-suite positions.

The percentage is slowly creeping upward, but there’s no point waiting around for the path to clear. We have some tips on how women can beat the odds and scale the corporate ladder a little quicker.

What Is the C-Suite?

The C-suite — or C-level — is a short way of referring to the group of senior executives in charge of a company. The name comes from the titles used for these executives, which start with a “C” for the word chief. The people occupying these positions usually have years of experience and notable leadership skills. They are tasked with high-level decision-making and management.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

The CEO is the executive at the top of the ladder, tasked with overseeing the entire company. While the CEO is key in decision-making for the company, they do not work alone and often consult with the rest of the C-Suite. This person is traditionally seen as the face of the company and usually has a strong track record prior to assuming the position.

Chief Operating Officer (COO)

The COO represents human resources in the senior executive suite. This person’s key responsibility is making sure the company’s operations are running smoothly in areas like hiring, training, legal, payroll, and administrative services.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

A CFO primarily manages the company’s finances, which involves skills like financial planning, assessing financial risks, financial reporting and record keeping. The CFO often works closely with the CEO on considering the viability of new business opportunities.

Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

The CMO is the executive charged with overseeing activities within an organization related to marketing and sales. This position requires creativity and product development.

Chief Information Officer (CIO)

The CIO, otherwise known as the Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO), controls the technology strategy for the organization. Successful CIOs combine technological skills, business strategy, and financial know-how.


Though the above positions are what you’ll normally see in major companies, there are a number of other C-Suite executives some companies opt for as well. For example, a Chief Data Officer (CDA), a Chief Medical Officer (CMO), a Chief Green Officer (CGO), a Chief Analytics Officer (CAO), or a Chief Security Officer (CSO).

What Are C-Level Skills?


Perhaps the most important skill C-Suite executives must possess is the ability to lead and inspire a team. Even if you’re incredibly skilled at what you do, if you can’t plan and communicate strategies, you will struggle to succeed in the C-Suite. To lead well, you must be organized and good at communicating.

Strategic Thinking

As one of the top executives at a company, you need to be able to think ahead and know where you are leading your team. Also, you must be able to navigate tricky, high-pressure situations requiring out-of-the-box solutions. Strategic thinking is absolutely vital for executive positions, and requires skills like market analysis and problem solving.


The importance of creativity for top-level executives cannot be overstated. You need to be able to generate ideas on a daily basis to keep your company competitive and make it through challenging periods.

What Are C-Level Responsibilities?


The core of the C-Suite’s responsibilities is carefully making decisions that will benefit the company. In business, you can never remain stagnant and must constantly think ahead. At each step, those with the most holistic view of the business must weigh the pros and cons.

Driving Results

More than just making decisions, the C-Suite has to produce results for the company. This is one of the most important responsibilities of the C-Suite because people’s jobs rely on it, and if the company is public, shareholders expect a return on investment.

Team Management

Without their team, the C-Suite would accomplish nothing. Thus, much of the C-Suite’s energy is channeled toward leadership and communication — making sure the company’s employees can understand and execute a plan for success.

Why Don’t More Women Reach the C-Suite?

As mentioned above, only a quarter of C-Suite positions are held by women. Moreover, the percentage of women in the CEO position is just six percent, and has not increased since last year. In general, female executives aren’t given executive roles with profit-and-loss responsibilities.

The Korn Ferry study revealed that the only C-Suite position where women are well-represented is Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), which is 55 percent female. Why exactly is it so difficult for women to make it to the top?

In an article published in The New York Times investigating why there aren’t more female CEOs, leading professionals tried to pinpoint the source of the issue.

“For years I thought it was a pipeline problem,” said Julie Daum, who led recruitment initiatives for women at Spencer Stuart. “But it’s not — I’ve been watching the pipeline for 25 years. There is real bias, and without the ability to shine a light on it and really measure it, I don’t think anything’s going to change. Ultimately at the top of the organization there are fewer and fewer spots, and if you can eliminate an entire class of people, it makes it easier.”

There isn’t just one explanation for the lack of female executives, but a plethora of factors that come together and form a giant wall between women and the C-Suite. At the route of most of the issues, however, is a reliance on antiquated stereotypes and favoritism.

“The stereotypical qualities of effective leaders — such as aggression, ambition, and dominance — tend to overlap with the stereotypical qualities of men more than woman,” writes Fast Company. The consequence of this is that men are often assumed to be “more natural” leaders, despite the fact that female-led companies produce equally strong results.

Additionally, men are encouraged from a younger age to compete and lead, while women don’t receive the same support. The issue of favoritism arises because nearly 80 percent of board members in large U.S. public companies are men. These are the people tasked with hiring CEOs.

Once in the C-Suite, women still face a multitude of challenges, such as work-life balance, gaining support from predominantly male peers, and unequal wages, to name a few.

There are more pervasive, subtle difficulties that women face as well, explains Krista Anderson-Copperman, the chief custom officer at Okta: “How you sit, stand — these positions convey and inspire confidence versus uncertainty. I realized how small changes … could make a significant impact on my confidence and how I was perceived.”

How Can Women in Business Reach the C-Suite?

Have a STEM Background

A tangible strategy for women hoping to gain a top executive position is to study and/or gain background experience in technology, math, or engineering.

The reason, according to Diane Bryant, who became the highest-ranking women at Intel: “Do the stuff that can be measured … It’s hard to be discriminated against if you have a clear metric.” Also, if you look at the people currently holding C-Suite positions, they commonly come from a STEM background. “To be successful, you have to embrace the majority,” said Bryant.

Gain Management Experience

In the same vein, another good way to reach the C-Suite is to prove that you’re a sure-thing. Get all the management experience possible and prove that you’re able to bring in results time and time again. If you can show that you’re tried and tested, it will be hard for companies to turn you down.

Find a Sponsor

As women are so under-represented at the top, sometimes you need to find a male executive who will plead your case. General Motors CEO Mary Barra sources her ability to move up the company’s ranks to her sponsor, a male vice president who privately lobbied on her behalf.

Benefits of More Women in C-Suite Roles

More Profitability

Research shows that firms with more women in the C-Suite are actually more profitable. In fact, a Peterson Institute for International Economics paper that surveyed 22,000 firms globally found that increasing leadership in a company to a 30 percent female share was associated with a 15 percent increase in profitability for a typical firm.

Diversity Spurs Innovation

Increasing the number of women in the C-Suite means facilitating a greater diversity in thought. Women bring different skills, experience, and strategic approaches to the table, which can be extremely beneficial in driving creativity and innovation.

Creating a New Normal

If more women begin occupying executive roles, it will show younger women that this is normal and will thus become an achievable trajectory for them too. The goal is that one day women in leadership positions will be normalized to the point that talent will always rise to the top regardless of gender.

Resources to Help Women Achieve C-Suite Status

Events for Women in Business

Without fail, successful women in business emphasize the importance of networking, a key benefit of events for female entrepreneurs. Events like the NAWBO National Women’s Business Conference, Forbes Women’s Summit, and London Business School’s Annual Women in Business Conference offer opportunities to connect with potential mentors, sponsors, or fellow professionals.

Leadership Programs

If you want to work on the tangible skills you need to become an executive, there are a number of leadership courses designed to help women reach the C-Suite. For example, the Impact Center hosts an annual Women’s Executive Leadership program, a six-month cohort program that helps women build their professional networks and thrive as leaders.


Ultimately, success requires skill and drive, as well as an understanding of how to navigate societal biases. The best guidance comes from those who have done it before. Many top female executives have written books about their journeys to the C-Suite which are required reading for anyone hoping to do the same.