With just 4 percent of the companies on this year’s Fortune 500 list led by female CEOS, the paucity of women in corporate leadership positions is evidence that the advancement of women in the workplace is an issue of great debate. Every year, however, it seems as though nerves are rubbed raw when this disparity is discovered anew. Rather than focusing on why women aren’t in more of these positions, perhaps the most salient question is: what traits are shared by those women who have succeeded in leadership roles? I believe strongly that while the answer might start with education and can be supported in the workplace, it certainly does not end there.
Let me stress that I do not minimize the value of a good education. In my own experience, the all-girls school I attended until college established a strong foundation that shaped my lifelong perception of my potential. In school, my classmates and I assumed we could all become CEOs, doctors, engineers, diplomats, or politicians, not because of any specific classes on women in leadership—in fact, I can’t recall having one—but because, quite frankly, we lived each day in an environment that primed us to see ourselves in those roles.
Similarly, companies can do many things to help aspiring women, such as offering leadership programs, mentoring, supportive environments that nurture female talent, and flexible work schedules for those with families. But there is also a theory that energy follows thought. Under that theory, if our life experiences haven’t brought us to the workplace with the personal belief that we deserve a place at the top, corporate initiatives cannot create that ambition or self-perception.
Every one of us has a unique path that is very personal. While a strong education and supportive companies can be common threads connecting successful women, they must be reinforced by the experiences we accumulate and belief in our own potential.
If you look at any determined and successful woman, you will see an executive who added skills assiduously, took risks, and dedicated herself to moving progressively into jobs with higher and higher responsibilities. At the heart of those observations, however, you will see a woman who has a strong belief in her own potential.
Role models show us that the road to success can be long but rewarding, paved with education, experience, and knowledge. It is incumbent upon all of us to work within our families and communities to ensure that future generations of women see themselves as natural leaders and inherently believe that professional ambition isn’t gender specific.