During a recent prime-time special, Barbara Walters asked Oprah Winfrey whether she regretted not having children. Oprah answered decisively, saying she couldn't have reached the career heights she has while caring for a child.
No one can put in 14-hour workdays and still be supermom or superdad. Yet in 2010, we are seeing that women can advance at high levels and still be a parent: 11 of 12 female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are mothers, according to a recent survey.
But earlier this month, an eye-opening report revealed what no one really wants to admit -- possible is not probable.
New research by Catalyst, a nonprofit working for advancement of women, reveals that the female progression in corporate boardrooms, executive office suites and the ranks of companies' top earners has stagnated. The 2010 findings represent the fifth report in which the annual change in female leadership remained flat.
The reasons have nothing to do with work/life balance. Catalyst also looked at male and female MBAs with high potential right out of school and followed them for 10 years. From their first job, women are paid less and receive fewer promotions and raises.
"They start behind and never catch up," said Michael J. Chamberlain, a senior director with Catalyst.
Companies have spent millions in diversity training, recruiting female graduates and teaching them leadership skills. And then they've dropped the ball in mining this talent for the top jobs. Today, 86 percent of executive officers at Fortune 500 companies are men.
The recession may be a factor because companies are struggling to eke out profits -- not necessarily creating new opportunities at the top. Even more, men in high-level jobs aren't giving them up. But if women are going to advance as the economy rebounds, they need to think differently.
Catalyst's research points to a solution. It discovered that while women have mentors, men more often have the higher-level sponsors who champion them. Mentoring, or having someone who offers career guidance and advice, is not as effective as is sponsorship -- when someone at a high level with clout advocates for your advancement.
"It's not a question of knocking on the door and saying, 'I'd like you to sponsor me,' " said Jan Combopiano, vice president and chief knowledge officer at Catalyst. "It is about having a career plan in mind, knowing the unwritten rules, and talking to people about what you need to get there -- including the experiences, skills and exposure to the right people in positions of power."
In Miami, Cristina Gallo-Aquino knows she's a rare breed as a recently promoted, high-level female executive at a Fortune 500 company. The mother of two landed in the executive ranks at Ryder System two months ago, becoming vice president and controller. Gallo-Aquino says she has advanced because she worked hard not only to make her supervisor advocate for her but also to showcase her skills across divisions.
"The more people who have had positive experiences with you, the more likely you are to succeed. That's how you build champions."
Carnival Cruise Lines doesn't have a formal program to identify women leaders, but Brenda Yester has climbed to senior vice president of revenue management. Yester landed a promotion in April to report directly to the CEO. She says she got promotions by knowing when to advocate for herself and when to ask others to help.
Even more important, she discovered, is going out of your way to get the skills you need to advance.
"People I mentor expect the company to do it for them, and I tell them you have to create the path for yourself."
To be sure, women are making some progress during the recession; it's just not enough. Catalyst believes the onus lies on senior leaders at public companies to view women managers as critical to their success in selling a product or service.
Companies such as Coca-Cola are the exception. Its leadership realizes women make up an increasing percentage of entrepreneurs worldwide who are buying services and products from big corporations. Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Co., has formed a council of senior leaders at his company to identify and promote opportunities for women, calling it "smart business."
In Florida, Cindy Kushner founded Women Executive Leadership 10 years ago to give female executives a place to go outside their company to find champions and get the skills to advance to high levels.
In January, WEL will reveal its 2010 Census report at its Corporate Salute and expects the results to be consistent with Catalyst's. But the good news is that six Florida public companies have added women to their boards for the first time.
"That's why it's so important for us to continue our efforts. It is a slow process, but we have to get companies to see women as ready for leadership positions."