Catherine Brewer was the first woman in the United States to receive a bachelor’s degree. The year was 1840. One hundred and forty-four years later in 1984, we saw for the first time that more women than men received bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Today, women outpace men by 150 percent in terms of earning post-graduate degrees. We’ve come a long way, but it’s taken a long time!
Although critical, formal education alone doesn’t guarantee success in the business world. After immigrating to the U.S., I was the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I chose a liberal arts field to ensure broad exposure to a variety of subjects. This education has proved very valuable, but the education I’ve received in the real world of business has been perhaps even more important to my career development.
In order to advance, senior executives must be high-achieving and demonstrate strong critical thinking and leadership competencies. They must also demonstrate maturity and adaptability learned through meaningful and diverse experiences over time—personally, professionally, and culturally. The question then becomes, how do we provide the opportunity for women in the workforce, particularly our high potentials, to gain professional and cultural experiences in addition to their formal education?
I’ve had the good fortune of being sponsored, mentored or coached by senior executives throughout my career. They’ve encouraged me to push my personal limits and sometimes take on challenges where I had little or no experience. Without their counsel, I would not have immersed myself in varied functional areas such as human resources, sales, finance, marketing, re-engineering, or working overseas. This “beyond the classroom” education has affected my path to leadership much more than my formal education. Given the opportunities afforded me, I consider it my responsibility and privilege to “pay it forward” and do all that I can to prepare other women for executive roles.
Today, there are only 19 women CEOs leading Fortune 500 organizations. Is it reasonable to believe that women could outpace male CEOs in the future, similar to our achievements in education? If so, we can’t wait another 144 years for this to happen. Rather, to ensure that talented women receive the same benefits of effective mentoring and coaching as do talented men, we need the female executives of today to continue “paying it forward.”