That’s One Small Step for a Woman, but is it a Giant Leap for Womankind?

For the first time, two of the top 10 highest paid chief financial officers in 2013 were women, the Wall Street Journal reported in June. Number one on the list was Safra Catz of multinational technology corporation Oracle, and Accenture’s Pamela Craig placed eighth.

Catz’s position in the top spot represents the first time a woman has held the top spot since the newspaper started tracking this data four years ago. And while this is definitely an admirable breakthrough, just how significant is its impact on the status of women in the corporate world?

“It does change the landscape,” said Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives. “The more role models an up-and-coming woman can have, the better.”

Spence said that because women are still uncommon in top positions, anytime you see a high-achieving female in an executive role, “it really stands out.”

According to Spence, women in the finance sector have had very few examples of high-power females on whom to base their own career paths. Catz and Craig, among others, offer them “an inspiration and a motivation,” Spence said.

Chloe Barzey, managing director of communications, media and technology at Accenture Strategy, agreed that having visible and accessible role models is a major key to the successful development of female leaders across all industries.

“Being a mentor to someone and finding your own mentor helps you build confidence, develop visions and goals, and expand networks,” Barzey said. “It’s important for women executives to have mentors who share their personal approaches to managing various aspects of their career journeys.”

Craig is no longer Accenture’s CFO, but her high ranking on the Wall Street Journal’s list proves that the company is taking the necessary steps to empower its female employees.

According to Barzey, Accenture has valuable mentoring and sponsorship initiatives in place, which “ensurewomen have the right level of exposure to senior leaders who can provide invaluable career advice and opportunities to advance to the next level.”

Additionally, the company has partnered with various organizations promoting women’s development. For example, Accenture is the presenting sponsor of the Executive Leadership Foundation’s annual Women’s Leadership Forum, a program specifically targeting African-American female executives.

“Together we team to help support current women leaders navigate the next phase of their personal and professional lives, and develop a network of support for the next generation,” Barzey said.

Despite its potentially empowering effects, however, the presence of two women at the top of the list of highest-paid CFOs raises many questions, and is just a “tiny crack” in the glass ceiling, according to Spence. Indeed, we’re celebrating 20 percent of the list’s being female, but that’s nowhere near the 51 percent of the general population that women represent.

“The glass ceiling needs to be completely shattered once and for all,” Spence said.

In order to level the playing field, according to Spence, companies must identify top talent and give women the right exposure and experiences to be able to rise to the top.

Many industries are “still in the hands of men,” she said, but we need women in executive positions so that decisions will better reflect the needs and values of their often-underserved half of the population.

Another troubling aspect of 2013’s list is that, for the first time, it marked a decline in the median salary of CFOs at S&P 500 companies. While the exact reason for the drop is unclear, it raises the issue of the wage gap between men and women: could the median salary have decreased because more women, who are traditionally paid less than their male counterparts, made the list?

There are “egregious” differences between the salaries of men and women, even when they hold the exact same position, Spence said, “and as women move up through the ranks to higher positions, it draws attention to these differences.”

With women making, on average, 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, any attention that can be drawn to this kind of sexual inequality is certainly a good thing. And employers can help take the first step by laying an effective foundation to promote the development of female leaders.

“It’s important that we understand and are able to provide insight on the way women define success, and the initiatives that help them achieve that success,” Barzey said.