We’re all too familiar with the stats showcasing the uneven gender divide in the business world.
For instance, only 20 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold only 14% of executive positions, and just 16% of board seats. Women earn $0.77 for every dollar earned by men.
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But with all the discussions about how to get more women in the upper echelons of the business world (thanks, Ms. Sandberg!), we wanted to hear some real-life stories of leaning in.
We spoke with five all-star women who have succeeded in traditionally male-dominated industries to hear their stories of climbing the mountain—and maybe glean some advice from how they made it to the top.
Karen Purcell, 45
Title: President of PK Electrical
Location: Reno, Nevada
Degrees: BSEE, Electrical Engineering, Widener University
Why I Chose This Field: Growing up, I always liked math and science, but I hadn’t thought about a career in engineering until my high school physics teacher suggested I consider it. At the time, I wasn’t even really sure what an engineer did. When I asked that question, his response was simple: "Well, they can do anything."
I made it my major and fell in love with engineering from day one. I’m now the president of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering, design and consulting firm—and the author of "Unlocking Your Brilliance," which explores the hurdles women face in the male-dominated STEM fields and offers pragmatic strategies to overcome them.
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Biggest Hurdle in My Career: When I first started going to job sites, out there with the contractors, everyone assumed I was the assistant—not the engineer. But once I opened my mouth, they realized, "Oh, she’s intelligent. She’s the engineer!" I felt like I always had to prove myself. It took about two years for people to believe in me. As a woman, you really have to go above and beyond to prove your value, while a lot of men just get that automatically.
The Best Get-Ahead Tip I Have: One of my best pieces of advice to women is to ensure you’re being heard. Sometimes, when you’re sitting in a meeting or conference, the men can be very overpowering. You need to stand up and be vocal. This can take practice sometimes. Try joining activities where you can practice having a voice in a safe zone. Getting comfortable with your own voice will help give you professional confidence.
The Military Woman
Jill Morgenthaler, 59
Title: Retired Army Colonel and Homeland Security Consultant
Degrees: B.A. Economics, Penn State; M.A. International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; Masters of Strategic Studies, Army War College
Why I Chose This Field: Growing up, I watched my father, a career marine officer, lead a very exciting life. I wanted that. When I joined the ROTC in 1972, I was a part of the first class that allowed women. For the first time, they were asking the question: Can women train as equals with men? This was one of the many "firsts" in my career.How Being a Woman Has Affected Me: There were plenty of men who hated the idea of women in the military and tried to stop me from doing my job. I’d learned a lot from my father about how soldiers should treat one another and conduct themselves, so any time I was in a situation where I wasn’t being treated correctly, I pointed it out. If a male soldier decided not to listen, saying, "I don’t care what a woman says," I’d reply, "Me neither—I care what an officer says!" I’d bring the focus back to respect for the title, not gender.
How Humor Helped Me Over Hurdles: I also used humor to gain my comrade's respect. If a male soldier refused to salute me, I’d respond, "Oh my gosh, you've forgotten how to salute!" then make him salute me for 15 minutes straight. Sure, it was a bit dramatic, but by using humor, I was able to make a strong point that no one soon forgot.
There were plenty of men who hated the idea of women in the military and tried to stop me from doing my job.
The Best Get Ahead Tip I Have: I have a motto I like: "Times are tough. I am tougher." As a voracious reader of English and Latin mythology, the theme of the hero’s journey always resonated with me. Remember that you’re there to do a job and you’re facing these challenges for a reason. Knowing that will get you through the tough times. You’ll look back in a few years and know that you had to be tested to get to where you are now—that’s why they call it a hero’s journey.
The Sports Agent
MJ Pedone, 43
Title: C.E.O. of Indra Public Relations
Location: New York City
Degrees: Studied marketing, but fell short of my degree when I left school to pursue some modeling opportunities overseas.
Why I Chose This Field: Athletics have always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always been a sports fan, and my family and siblings were die-hards! My sister and I were considered tomboys growing up—we played everything: softball, swimming, tennis and skiing. I also grew up with the arts, teaching tap, jazz and gymnastics. Going into sports and entertainment PR allowed me to follow my interests.
Biggest Hurdle in My Career: As a woman breaking into the male-dominated sports industry, the biggest hurdle I had to overcome was shutting out the naysayers. Once, a male C.E.O. was unhappy that I’d pulled off an event with the New York Rangers that he’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to do for a long while. He started spreading rumors that I’d hired actors who looked like the athletes to do the appearance, which was a complete lie.
The situation was easily mitigated since I wasn’t doing anything dishonest, but I knew that this was just the first of many obstacles—I knew I had to stay as focused and determined as possible and face all challenges head-on, with a strong mind.
How Being a Woman Has Affected Me: Men and women sometimes handle situations differently. I’ve witnessed first-hand the many insecurities and struggles that men face, especially athletes. They’re more egotistical than women, and sometimes tend not to make logical decisions.
Women process things differently, with a more rational view of the situation. We tend to think before we react, and this has been an advantage. My ability to deal with tough situations with confidence and grace has earned respect not only from the athletes, but from other agents, publicists and high-level executives with whom I interact on a daily basis.
The Best Get-Ahead Tip I Have: My best piece of advice to women is to be confident, work diligently and get as much on-the-job experience as you can. I can’t stress confidence enough. Also: Love what you do—then you don’t mind all the hours you spend working.
The Finance C.E.O.
Elle Kaplan, 36
Title: C.E.O. & Founding Partner, Lexion Capital Management
Location: New York City
Degrees: B.A. English and B.A. Chemistry, University of Michigan; Executive M.B.A. in Finance, Columbia University
Why I Chose This Field: My mom, though a genius in many ways, was financially overwhelmed when my father got sick. I was in college and wanted to help, but didn’t know how. I was studying English and Chemistry at the University of Michigan, but I realized that I wanted to do something that would help people like my mom.
Biggest Hurdle in My Career: I came to New York after college with just $200, no job and a dream of working on Wall Street. I had no connections and no formal finance training. Through tenacity and drive, I landed an entry-level analyst position. I was an honors student in both qualitative and quantitative endeavors, and I made sure to highlight that in my interviews. I spoke about myself with confidence, and therefore other people had confidence in me too. Once you land a job, it’s binary: You either learn and do, or you’re out. The latter was not an option! I spent the next decade working my way up "the Street," learning everything I could.
In 2010 I founded a private bank, Lexion Capital Management, dedicated to helping hard-working people safeguard and grow their assets, even if they may not know much—or anything—about asset management. Before making any decision or taking any action, I always ask myself, "Is this advice good enough for my mom?"
How Being a Woman Has Affected Me: Being a female in the private equity space makes me feel responsible for serving as an example for younger women. I hope to inspire more women and girls to pursue finance as a career. I want them to see me and think, "If she can do it, I can do it, too." One great way to change the future of finance is to provide younger women with visible female role models in the finance space. As a woman on Wall Street, you’re constantly in a fishbowl. For more than 10 years, I was the only woman in the conference room, but now I’m the C.E.O. of my own firm.
The Best Get-Ahead Tip I Have: While it may be a cliche, my biggest get-ahead tip is to believe in your own success. You have to be your own cheerleader—no one can advocate for you or make it happen like you can.
The TV Exec
Jodi Markley, 47
Title: Senior Vice President of Operations at ESPN
Location: Bristol, Conn.
Degrees: B.A. Communications, University of South Florida; Simmons School of Executive Graduate Studies
Why I Chose This Field: Growing up, I played a lot of sports, enjoyed learning languages and loved—much to my parent’s chagrin—watching TV. So when I started working at ESPN International in 1989, one year after joining the network in operations control, it was everything I wanted wrapped in a bow!
Biggest Hurdle in My Career: Learning to come to terms with the fact that not every project was going to be a win was one of the biggest challenges of my career. Some projects, no matter how hard you work on them, still may fail. When you fail—and you will—use it as a learning experience and move on.
How Being a Woman Has Affected Me: We’re all trying to balance our personal and professional lives on a daily basis, and some days are better than others. In the early days, when I was traveling internationally, I was away from my children more than I would have liked. But I developed a way to handle it: Before I went on a trip, I would show them where I was going on a map and bring them back a small gift from that country—that way they were part of the adventure. They would bring the gifts to school for "Show and Tell."
The Best Get-Ahead Tip I Have: I eventually ended up leading all of ESPN International's production and operations and am now ESPN’s S.V.P. of Operations, but I didn’t start there. It took a lot of work, and one thing I think is crucial to professional success is to learn as much as you can as your responsibilities grow. Not every aspect of every role is going to be absolutely thrilling, but it will make you a better manager and leader, so make sure to learn as you grow.
It’s also important to have mentors, both inside your industry and outside, whom you can get advice from and bounce ideas off. Your "Board of Directors": the people you know who will take your call and for whom you’ll do the same.
And, most important, make sure to always take yourself seriously. Otherwise, no one else will. Recognize that you matter and what you say matters. Speak up and get your ideas heard.