How to Help Women Shatter the Glass Ceiling

After working for more than a decade in an executive search firm, Kim Shanahan knows a thing or two about redevelopment. Shanahan’s clients come to her to build high-impact executive leadership teams during a time of intense market competitiveness. Seven years ago, she joined leadership and talent consulting firm Korn/Ferry, and now she teams with CHROs to revamp and rebuild HR functions. Shanahan provides insight into challenges women face in getting to the C-suite today and gives ways companies can shatter the glass ceiling.

What are the biggest challenges for women who want to enter the C-suite?

Challenges women face in getting to the C-suite fall into two main categories: organizational and individual. Many organizations are not putting in place the flexibility necessary to help women manage multiple priorities. Given the limited number of females in the C-suite, it can also be difficult to find those who other females can look up to as they come up the ranks. This can be discouraging, as many would benefit from others who have overcome similar obstacles. In terms of the individual challenges, women are faced with intense perfectionism and multiple priorities with a limited number of hours in the day. As one moves up to the C-suite, those priorities can get even more intense, and perfectionism can be counterproductive to moving up. Sometimes women will only take role risks if they are 95 percent certain they will be successful, whereas men will jump in even when they are not confident that they will be successful.

According to newly released data from the Korn/Ferry 500 CHRO database, which tracks the professional moves of approximately 500 CHROs, 58 percent of CHROs are male. How can businesses work to drive inclusion and diversity?

Organizations should encourage a diverse slate on every open opportunity. In order to drive a culture of inclusion for all, some flexibility is also helpful to accommodate intense priorities. Leaders should encourage females to take the appropriate risks to further their career even when the females have doubts. Organizations should strive to understand and appreciate gender differences and put in place those mechanisms to maximize potential and impact for all.

What myths exist today in regards to gender diversity in HR?

The HR department has long been considered a chiefly female-driven function within a business. Many believe that there are more females in CHRO roles today given that there are more females in the HR function. Unfortunately, the executive glass ceiling is still intact — even in a field primarily considered to be female-dominated. Forty years ago, HR was considered mostly an administrative function. For that reason, many women would often be promoted from secretaries to human resources professionals — supporting the myth that women dominate the top ranks of HR. An even bigger myth is that HR is a leader in gender diversity in the C-suite. The HR function has evolved into a complex, critical function backed by business and science with a strong need for pragmatism and art/nuance. This is an equal opportunity function. Unfortunately, even with more females feeding into the HR C-suite, this is not translating to a majority in the Fortune 500 CHRO role.

How have women’s positions within the HR industry evolved in the last few decades?

There continues to be a large number of exceptional female CHROs who serve as confidants to CEOs, boards and their peers. They also serve as examples to high-potential (female and male) HR colleagues. While the numbers are skewed to their male counterparts, female CHROs serve as a powerful and close-knit segment of the Fortune 500. These female executives are managing multiple priorities, intense deadlines and pressures, and are proactively serving as mentors. Many CEOs we work with state females have deep business acumen, strong experience and valuable instincts that make them exceptional CHROs.

Jennifer Kahn is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at