12 Fierce Women on What It Takes to Get Ahead

Updated 05/22/17

A shocking statistic used to be all it took to spark a conversation about pay equality. Now, the latest projection that women won't receive equal compensation to their male co-workers until 2152—yes, 135 years from now—barely raises an eyebrow. We've become so desensitized to this information that earning 4% less than the guy sitting next to us has just become reality. But it shouldn't be.

So what's it actually going to take? "To make real progress, it has to be about power—using and growing the power we women already have," rather than the power we're waiting to be given, says Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest and author of Own It: The Power of Women at Work. It's not just down to your manager or superiors to shift the status quo; it's on you.

From CEOs and entrepreneurs to leading lawyers and venture capitalists, we called on 12 fiercely successful women to find out what it takes to get ahead and, more importantly, how to get there. Their message is simple but strong: Be determined, not dismayed.

Here are 12 realistic things we can all do to nudge the bar that little bit closer.

Seek a Sponsor, Not a Mentor

Courtesy of Sallie Krawcheck

"Having a sponsor has been make-or-break in my career," says Krawcheck. "Women have three times as many mentors as men do, but half as many sponsors." She describes a mentor as someone who monitors your work and is passive while a sponsor advocates on your behalf. "Carla Harris has said that every important decision is made when you are not in the room. Your sponsor is the person in the room who will say 'promote her, not him."

Krawcheck, the former president of the global wealth and investment management division of Bank of America, says networking is also key to achieving equal opportunities. "The biggest mistake I've seen women make is that we are so good at school and we believe that if we do the same things in business, we will succeed," she says. "So we get straight A's and the guys get promoted ahead of us. We fail to recognize the importance of networks—not just for schmoozing, but for information."

What You Can Do:

Focus on building relationships. "Networking doesn't have to be golf or going for a drink. It's an exchange of ideas," she says. It doesn't have to be out of hours, either. "You can send someone an email and say, I saw this research. What do you think? And how are you? That's networking."

We fail to recognize the importance of networks—not just for schmoozing, but for information.

Quit Apologizing

Courtesy of Oui Shave

"I'm definitely guilty of this," says Karen Young, CEO and founder of Oui Shave, when asked about a Canadian study that found women apologize more than men do. "The language we use is incredibly important, but being aware of it is probably even more important. For example, I found myself constantly apologizing in emails for my lack of quick responses. Once I noticed it, I started saying things like 'thanks for your patience' instead."

What You Can Do:

Pay special attention to your language. Do you credit your success to luck or hard work? Do you apologize when you shouldn't be sorry? Your default response to colleagues and clients speaks volumes about your character and confidence.

Focus on Your Own Skills, Not Your Co-Worker's

Courtesy of TheSkimm

Negotiating can be tough—even Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, co-founders and CEOs of TheSkimm, say it's a skill they've developed over time. "In our early career, we made mistakes. We didn't know how far to push when negotiating a new job's salary, and we didn't take advantage of review periods to ask for a raise—at all," they tell MyDomaine. "Then, we'd be upset later when a salary bump hadn't magically been brought up!"

So how do you know when to ask for more or when to put your head down and build your skillset? The duo says this wisdom holds true: "Someone once gave us advice on this that has stuck. It's not a compelling argument to measure your worth against others, but rather know your own. If you are doing an amazing job, ask for what you are worth. At an appropriate time. Advocate for yourself, but also be honest about where you are in your career," they say.

What You Can Do:

If you're concerned that your co-workers are earning more, shift your focus before approaching your manager. Be clear about your value and what you bring to the company as an individual, not in comparison to your peers. "Make and discuss clear goals to a salary raise with your manager—and then hit them head-on."

It's not a compelling argument to measure your worth against others, but rather know your own. If you are doing an amazing job, ask for what you are worth.

Don't Wait Until You're Qualified

Courtesy of Of Mercer

We're just as smart and skilled, so why aren't more women in top leadership positions? According to a study in Harvard Business Review, it might be because we don't put ourselves forward. The study found that women don't apply for jobs unless they're 100% qualified while men trust that they'll learn.

"Job descriptions are general guidelines," says Tiffany Pham, founder and CEO of Mogul, a news platform for women. "Yes, there may be roles that require certain criteria, but the majority simply aim to draw the best talent out there. And that's you," she says.

What You Can Do:

Put yourself forward for new opportunities and trust that you have the ability to learn. "Regardless of what qualifications you may or may not have, believe in yourself and apply. If a job or a company resonates with you on an emotional or intellectual level, apply," she says. "In the end, if you are the right cultural fit for the company and demonstrate the qualities that are key to their core values, they will find ways to evolve the role to fit you."

Own Your Achievements

Paley Fairman for Clique Media Group

"As women, we must stop subscribing to this antiquated notion that we should feel 'guilty' about our professional achievements because we think we don't deserve success," says Alex Taylor, president of digital at Clique Media Group, MyDomaine's parent company. "We have to acknowledge our self-worth and get over our self-doubt. If we truly want equality in the workplace, we must speak about ourselves on a level playing field: We earn our achievements and we own our failures just like everyone else."

What You Can Do:

If someone congratulates you on a job well done, how do you respond? Rather than shrugging off their praise, own your achievement. "Language is a powerful weapon, and many of us fail to recognize word choice as the smoking gun that often undermines our efforts toward equality," says Taylor. "Success isn't about luck; it's about grit."

Success isn't about luck; it's about grit. 

Be a Role Model

Courtesy of Annie Lamont

Annie Lamont, venture capitalist and managing partner at Oak HC/FT, has one message for women who shy away from male-dominated industries: "The candidates I interview at my firm are 20% female, and that needs to expand. It can be done, and we need you in the industry," she tells MyDomaine. "It's an unbelievably great career for a woman—don't be discouraged before you even start."

It's a sentiment that Krawcheck, who worked in finance for decades, echoes. "When people are asked what a successful person looks like, they think of a man. If we sponsor each other, then that picture of leadership changes," she says. "Maybe not fast enough for the woman who has progressed in her career, but it will for her daughter."

What You Can Do:

Whether you're considering a career change or are scoping out other companies, push yourself outside your comfort zone. Don't be dissuaded by industries or organizations that are male-dominated. View it as an opportunity to be the role model you wish you had, and show other women that it's possible too.

Ask Your Friend What She Earns

Courtesy of Socialyte

One of the biggest barriers for equal pay is self-imposed: We shy away from talking about money. "We see this often with influencers who demand more money for projects based on what they feel their worth is, and I started the agency to help them fight," says Beca Alexander, CEO of Socialyte. "Confidence will drive the conversation. When our talents talk openly about how much they're paid for various projects, it drives the others to ask for more, and they deserve it."

What You Can Do:

Talk to your friends about money—how much they earn, how much they'd like to earn, and what steps they're taking to get there. Opening up about your salary can be an uncomfortable topic, but it's a crucial step to gain information. Stay informed by checking Glassdoor and LinkedIn to find your market rate, and talk to other women to build your confidence.

Be Your Own Advocate

Courtesy of Margi Booth

Although women make up 40% of the global workforce, they hold only 24% of senior management roles. When Harvard Business Review studied over 10,000 senior executives competing for top roles, they found a possible explanation: Women were less likely to apply for a job if they'd been rejected in the past.

Margi Booth, chairman of global digital communications agency MBooth, says she can relate. "I was rejected for a promotion at my first job and remember being very depressed about it," she tells MyDomaine. "But stewing gets you nowhere." Instead, Booth used the opportunity to propel her to work harder, turning disappointment into determination."I doubled down, worked harder, and made sure that the people evaluating my work, knew what I was doing. I became a subtle advocate for myself. I didn't leave it to others to do the job for me."

What You Can Do:

After being rejected from a role, ask for feedback. Try to get to the heart of the issue: What skills do you need to build? What experience is needed? Then, map out the actions you need to take to get there.

Track Your Performance

Courtesy of Kidbox

If the thought of asking for a raise makes you squirm, Miki Racine Berardelli, CEO of Kidbox and former executive at Tory Burch, says you need to shift your focus. "Employees are the most important asset a company possesses … and in most cases, it costs more to replace a valued employee than it does to retain him or her," she tells MyDomaine. "Employees should think of themselves in this way and make sure that they track their own performance and contributions with a business mindset."

What You Can Do:

"Be mindful of the value you have brought to your company, and be prepared to illustrate it," she suggests. Work with your manager to set KPIs and track your performance towards those goals. "While it may feel uncomfortable, this is a business conversation, and when approached objectively, it becomes much easier to have."

Be mindful of the value you have brought to your company, and be prepared to illustrate it.

Know Your Market Rate

Courtesy of Create & Cultivate

You might have a hunch you're being underpaid, but how can you actually know for sure? Jaclyn Johnson, CEO and founder of Create & Cultivate, says everyone should take advantage of the torrent of free salary comparison tools online. "The truth is it's really hard to know but there are a ton of sites like Glassdoor and Social Bluebook," she says. LinkedIn also has a handy comparison tool, which clearly states the median base salary and total compensation for your role, based on their extensive database.

What You Can Do:

Set aside 30 minutes to research your market rate. Enter your experience, title, and area of expertise to hone your search, and don't forget to pay it forward. Sites like LinkedIn rely on people to share their salaries, to create transparency. Enter your details anonymously so others can stay informed too.

Speak Up If You See Something Wrong

Courtesy of Lisa Bertini

This conversation doesn't just involve you—it's also crucial to support the women around you too. Employment and labor attorney Lisa Bertini of Bertini Law says it's crucial that we speak up if we see others affected by pay inequality. "Don't watch others be cheated. Once you climb that ladder, don't pull it up behind you. Join the executive committees and compensation committees so you can make the decisions, and this will be part of an ugly past!" she urges.

What You Can Do:

If you notice discrimination, speak up. Bertini says it's crucial to address the information in written form, rather than just verbally, so there is a clear chain of communication if the situation escalates.

Once you climb that ladder, don't pull it up behind you. Join the executive committees and compensation committees so you can make the decisions

Implement Change

Courtesy of Joor

Kristin Savilia, CEO of wholesale marketplace Joor, has a message for managers: Step up. "As a leader at Joor, I talk the talk and walk the walk—and I have to, with almost 60% women on our team!" she says.

"The first thing I did as new CEO was analyze skillsets and pay levels of the talented team members we have here. I am ensuring that current team members with equal skill sets and titles are within the same compensation ranges or levels. This then will help us hold a standard for new hires such that their compensation is commensurate with their experience and job responsibilities and in line with our current team members, where applicable."

What You Can Do:

If you're in a position of power and are able to make change, do it. Review salary allocation within your team and research how it compares to the market rate. It won't just show employees that you are transparent; it'll also prevent losing valuable team members when a more tempting offer arises.

Own It by Sallie Krawcheck $14
Shop
Earning It by Joann S. Lublin $17
Shop
The Career Code by Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power $10
Shop

Tell us: What are your methods for challenging the status quo?

Related Stories