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4 Ways Women Can Become CEOs

women ceo

For women eyeing a CEO spot in their future, there is—a bit—more hope.

About 30 percent of the incoming class of CEOs will be women by 2040, according to a new report. Women currently hold about 5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions, according to Catalyst.com.

In eight of the last 10 years, there were more incoming women CEOs than outgoing ones, according to a study of 2,500 public companies from Strategy& (formerly Booz and Company). Changing corporate attitudes and the increasing number of women in higher education contributed to the increase.

Interestingly, although women and men in CEOs spots have similar backgrounds, women get hired differently. Men climb an internal ladder. Women CEOs are more likely to come from outside of the organization. “That women CEOs are more often outsiders may be an indication that companies have not been able to cultivate enough female candidates in house,” writes Gary L. Neilson, Senior Partner, and one of the authors of the report. “So when boards look for new CEOs, they necessarily find a larger pool of candidates outside their own organizations.”

That limited internal pipeline has ramifications. Insider CEOs tend to generate higher returns than outsiders, according to the study. Perhaps that is one reason that of the women CEOs who leave their jobs, 38% are forced out, as compared to 27% of men.

If you want to be among that incoming class of CEOs one day, here’s a game plan derived from the report.

Network, network, network. The importance of networking just can’t be overstated. Building relationships within your company as well as in your industry and beyond is critical. Find mentors and sponsors. You need to be known by a wide range of people to get your name in front of industry leaders–and become one.

Consider an MBA. The share of CEOs with MBAs increased by nearly 50 percent between 2003 and 2013, and the report’s authors expect that trend to continue.

Choose the right industry.  Women CEOs run business across sectors and regions. But companies in information technology, consumer staples, and consumer discretionary industries have the highest percentages of women CEOs. The lowest? Materials.

Don’t worry about going global. If you want to spend part of your career in Hong Kong or London, it may be a great experience. But it doesn’t necessarily make you a more compelling CEO candidate. About 80 percent of CEOs came from the country in which company headquarters were located, and 65 percent did not have experience working abroad.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.