More women business leaders should step into the limelight

Women are charging up the corporate ladder largely unseen by the next generation.

Why women have not achieved parity with men in the workplace continues to bewitch experts. Yet, insights to the mystery may be readily available in the widely popular Harry Potter series.

At Hogwarts Academy, Hermione, Harry Potter's intrepid girl sidekick, is the über multitasker with boundless ambition. In a classic example in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," she uses a magical gold necklace to manipulate time so she can attend two classes at once and gain a competitive edge over the boys. But she is mum about her potent powers. Her secret is revealed only because she must use the time travel tool to help save the day.

In the biggest conglomerates in the real world of corporate America, hundreds of women are flying under the radar screen of the public eye while the Harry Potters in the corner suite have their name on the marquee. As a result, an overwhelming majority of aspiring businesswomen in their 20s do not believe there are enough women role models in the business realm.

We recently conducted an online survey of aspiring business women, the majority of whom ranged in age from 22 to 29. Ninety-five percent of our 550 respondents believe it is important to their success to see women in business profiled in the media, and yet 75 percent said there is an insufficient amount of women role models in business. Perhaps most alarmingly, 59 percent said that they believed being a woman will hurt their chances of attaining the highest reaches of a corporation.

What makes women such strong members of a team is their ability to set their egos aside and get the job done without a lot of fanfare. But because women executives do not typically seek the limelight, and because their corporations and the media do not spotlight them enough, both the women and their accomplishments remain invisible to the next generation of aspiring women business leaders.

To identify the "Next 20 Female CEOs," Forté Foundation, in conjunction with PINK magazine, waded through hundreds of names. Similar to Anne Sweeney, cochair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, many of them are CEOs of subsidiaries of the largest companies in the world. For example, Karen Katz, president and CEO of Neiman Marcus Stores and Michele Buck, corporate senior vice president and president, US Snacks, The Hershey Co.

Claire Babrowski, who was recently named as president and acting CEO of RadioShack, and who was also featured on our list of emerging CEOs, may have already begun to break the stubborn spell. Like Ms. Babrowski, the next generation of women business leaders needs to emerge from behind the murky shadows. Young women want to hear stories and see examples of how to overcome age-old barriers.

For one thing, integrating work and personal life remains a significant challenge: A resounding 86 percent of the survey respondents - who do not have the power to be in two places at once - said they were concerned about how to balance work and family. On a scale of 1 through 10, 74 percent chose seven or higher to quantify the importance of a flexible work environment.

Another challenge: informal networks that exclude women from critical decisions and opportunities. Almost 95 percent of our survey respondents believe that old-boys' networks still exist. It's critical for women to build and fortify their own supportive networks.

Albeit quietly, women are charging up the corporate ladder and they are not going to stop until they reach the top. But it remains to be seen how the Harry Potters of corporate America feel about sharing the big screen. And how do audience members feel about giving credit to a dynamic duo versus a singular superhero? How do women feel about taking center stage?

It would be nice to have a magical necklace that could help women business leaders overcome cultural stereotypes that seem to persist in the modern world. Maybe women business leaders from the board room and beyond being inspired to serve as role models and mentors for the future generation of female CEOs is all the magic we need.

Elissa Ellis is executive director of Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on inspiring and directing women into business leadership positions.

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