More Mary Barras please: Female managers should follow the example of the General Motors boss and take on operational positions to move to the top, labour experts say.

More Mary Barras please: Female managers should follow the example of the General Motors boss and take on operational positions to move to the top, labour experts say.

Mary Barra made corporate history seven months ago when she became the first female chief executive officer of a major global carmaker.

Yet for all the gains made by women in the highest levels of global companies, most are still in the wrong jobs if they want to follow Barra's career path.

That's because unlike Barra, who'd been in charge of General Motors's product development for two years before her appointment to the helm of the carmaker, a majority of top-ranked women on the US Standard & Poor's 500 Index aren't in the kinds of operational jobs that lead to the corner office. Rather, 55 per cent of them are finance chiefs, top lawyers or heads of human resources, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

About 94 per cent of S&P 500 bosses lead operations positions immediately before ascending to the top job, and the relative scarcity of women overseeing product lines or entire businesses risks slowing their advance to the very top. The data show that the next generation of female executives is poorly positioned to capitalise on recent progress at a time companies from Google to Apple are laying bare their lack of diversity to help raise the number of women and minorities in the workforce.

Why women are left off the CEO track finds its roots in all echelons of the corporate career, recruiters say. Women, lacking role models, tend to start in functional positions, and companies are still more likely to promote a man in a line job than a woman. Then boards, which are predominantly male, fail to identify promising female executives who could be moved into operational functions and prepared for the top job as part of succession plans.

'Very hard'

Dawn Lepore, now a director at multiple companies, says she probably wouldn't have been hired as CEO of Drugstore.com in 2004 if she hadn't first run a unit of US brokerage firm Charles Schwab.

"It's very hard to move from a functional role to a CEO job," Lepore said. "You usually can't just go from CFO or head of marketing to CEO. More women need to get into these operating jobs. The fact that I'd run a revenue unit with revenue of $US1 billion ($1.1 billion) made a huge difference."

The 24 female chief executives in the S&P 500 index today is a record, yet that's still less than 5 per cent of the total number of CEOs, while women make up about half of the total workforce.

In the layers just beneath the top job, women account for about 8 per cent of the more than 2000 five highest-paid executives at each S&P 500 company, according to 2013 proxy filings. About 42 per cent of those top-ranked women who were not CEOs were in operating jobs, based on the data compiled by Bloomberg.

Grooming female role models

The only way to get more female CEOs is to get a conscious effort within corporations to spot future leaders early in their careers and push them toward operational jobs, according to labour experts. Boards also need to be more aware and groom more female presidents, chief operating officers and heads of units who will, in turn, become role models for the next generation.

In other words, more Mary Barras. An engineer by training, the 52-year-old spent more than 30 years at Detroit-based General Motors, which entrusted her with increasing responsibilities, including plant manager and vice president of manufacturing engineering.

Another example is Susan Cameron, who returned to tobacco giant Reynolds American in May after leading the maker of Camel cigarettes from 2004 to 2011. She is a seasoned manager at 55. From 2001 to 2004, she was head of British American Tobacco's unit Brown & Williamson before it combined its US businesses with Reynolds, and she will stay on as Reynolds chief after the close of its $US25 billion purchase of Lorillard, the company behind cigarette brands such as Newport and Kent.

Line jobs

Other recent appointments to the top job included two former female chief operating officers last year: Defense contractors Lockheed Martin's Marillyn Hewson, 60, and General Dynamics's Phebe Novakovic, 56.

"Women need to get into these line roles, demand it, and focus on it as their career path," said Lepore, who is now a director at AOL and past director at Wal-Mart Stores and EBay.

Companies are still more likely to groom a man for a higher job when he shows potential, said Doreen Wright, former CIO of Campbell Soup and Nabisco and a current board member at plastic shoe maker Crocs.

Thinking ahead

"It's not the step of the president to CEO, it's the step before that," said Wright, who wasn't personally interested in the top job. "There's plenty of women, so why aren't they making it to the business president role? That's the problem."

To some degree, companies fail to think far enough in advance about future CEO candidates, said John Wood, vice chairman at executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles in New York. Women often become head of non-operational businesses because they started in those areas. The board needs to ensure that executives who show promise are given a chance at a line job sooner, regardless of their gender, he said.

"I don't think there is a bias, a lot of companies are specifically looking for women to put into these jobs," said Wood, who has helped place more than 200 CEOs and directors. "If you haven't been thoughtful about evolving and developing your talent, you may find that you narrow your choices beyond what you should if you had more actively managed people getting new assignments."

The lack of operational experience is also hurting women's chances to sit on boards in the S&P 500 companies, where female directors account for just 18 per cent of the total. Companies rarely pick heads of human resources departments to be directors, said Julie Daum, who leads the North American board practice at executive-recruiting firm Spencer Stuart in New York.

'Nothing has changed'

"People have been talking about it for a long time, and clearly nothing has changed," said Daum, who has recruited directors for General Electric, Amazon and Wal- Mart. "The question is, do women opt into those jobs or is that where people allow them to succeed because it's OK to have an HR person who is a woman?"

Facebook Inc. chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" is resonating with women precisely because not enough women are taking the risk and getting to operational jobs, said Jane Stevenson, who leads the global succession practice at recruiter Korn/Ferry International.

"Generally speaking, when a man gets into a new job, he's already thinking about the next job and what he needs to get the next job," said Stevenson, who is co-author of the book "Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation that Drives Sustainable Growth -- And Why Others Fail." "Women, on the other hand, when they are appointed to big jobs, are out to prove they deserve to be in the job they're already in. That presents a different way of looking for career progression."

Signs of thaw

There are signs of a thaw.

At the turn of the century, the S&P 500 had six female CEOs and the total didn't top 10 until 2006, according to Spencer Stuart. They reached 24 after Barbara Rentler's promotion at discounter Ross Stores in June. And 11 of those CEOs took their jobs since 2012.

There are also two notable counter-examples to the traditional career path: PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was chief financial officer before taking the top job, as was Lynn Good at Duke Energy. They are among the 6 per cent of S&P 500 CEOs -- men and women -- who had a non-operational job immediately before their access to the top, according to data from Equilar.

Still, role models stay rare for women motivated to succeed, said J. Veronica Biggins, managing director at Diversified Search in Philadelphia and a director at Southwest Airlines.

"Only recently have women been able to see other women in roles where they could say 'Wow, I could be the CEO of this company,'" Biggins said. "It hasn't been that long where you could see that."

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