5 ways women can get to the top

In a day and age where aspiring female executives are bombarded with all kinds of conflicting advice about advancement, where should you focus your efforts to be truly effective in making headway in your career?

The issues are complicated. Do you need a mentor to teach you the ropes or a sponsor to open doors? How do you get your work noticed without being a braggart? What are the right opportunities to raise your hand for in order to display your ambition?

Aydinmutlu | iStock / 360 | Getty Images

But let's back up for a moment.

When I graduated from Stanford Business School in 1979, there were few, if any, female mentors or sponsors. It was a playing field that was not level for women, or particularly welcoming to us. As a woman on Wall Street, all I knew to advance in my career was to emulate the workplace behavior of the successful people in my world. So I studied how they conducted themselves in meetings and on the phone, and I watched carefully how the most successful executives communicated. Early on in my career, I worked for one of the "wizards of Wall Street" and learned from him that you can be both unfailingly kind and sympathetic while still being a hard charger who made things happen.

Today, things are better for women in a lot of ways, and there is considerably more conversation around issues of gender equity in business. Yet our numbers are still lagging. Only 15 percent of executives in U.S. companies are women. We occupy 17 percent of available board seats, and a paltry 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Something needs to change. Here are some important steps that I believe can help women who are seeking to leapfrog in their careers:

Seek out sponsorship. A key predictor of women's advancement to senior leadership roles is access to sponsors who will: open doors, open key networks, advocate, and introduce top female talent onto a trajectory. Research by Herminia Ibarra of Insead shows that women are significantly more likely to be assigned mentors but have less access to sponsors. No matter what programs are available to you, work to develop relationships with senior executives who can serve as an advocate in a formal or informal way.

Become a prodigious advice seeker. People love giving advice. Use this as an entry point to develop relationships with senior leaders and use it as a way to get advice and share information about what you're working on. Research by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University shows that due to bias, women are less likely to be perceived as having leadership potential. For example, in performance evaluations, their successes are more likely to be attributed to teamwork rather than their individual leadership skills. One way to sidestep this unconscious bias is to ensure that your higher-ups know about your successes and can easily brag on your behalf.

Get into the growth mindset. Relationships are a two-way street. The senior-level male executive I mentioned above wasn't a formal mentor or sponsor for me, but he was "loud" about his support for my work because I was able to create growth in his business. Be looking for opportunities to grow your own results and to help others grow theirs. Raise your hand for new assignments even if you have to stretch for 50 percent of it. That's what men do.

Commit to helping other women. When I get invitations for conferences or meetings with access to influencers, my first thought is who would benefit from this opportunity? Who can I invite to attend this event with me? As a member of The Committee of 200 (C200), a group of the world's most successful C-suite executives and entrepreneurs, our motto is "success shared." We embody this in our relationships with our fellow members, but also in the work of our foundation, where we provide programming, advice and scholarships for young women we believe have the chance to succeed. It's our hope that these efforts will create a pipeline of women to fill our ranks. So whether you look inside or outside of your organization, make a commitment to using your own power and influence to help connect, lift and help other talented women.

Remove barriers. Because people tend to network with those who are similar to them, women are still more likely to be excluded from the (largely male dominated) strategic networks of influence that predict advancement. And this is because things can get tricky when a senior male executive, who would normally invite a young associate out to drinks after work to network, invites a women instead of a man. While the onus really falls on leadership to create space for these kinds of professional relationships to form, be aware of these barriers as you build relationships. Look for opportunities to meet on-site or within the parameters of the work day and then go outside of your own comfort zone by seeking out men and women that may have different background and expertise from your own.

As a leader, I can now acknowledge that the system needs to bend to help talented women succeed. Many blue-chip companies have put mentoring, sponsorship and leadership programs in place to help propel women into the pipeline. But we cannot rely on only those large companies with the resources to structure change. Keep your own eyes open and take every opportunity to jumpstart your own career and to unleash the talent of other promising women as they enter the workforce.

Commentary by Michelle Clayman, founder, managing partner and chief investment officer of New Amsterdam Partners, an institutional money management firm in NY. She is a member of the Committee of 200 and chair of the Advisory Council of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter @Clayman_Inst.