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Women make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. labor force, but they account for just 25 percent of executive and senior level positions at S&P 500 companies, according to the Center for American Progress. That percentage is even smaller when you look at board seats and CEO positions, of which women hold just 20 percent and six percent, respectively.
One leader who is encouraging companies to not only hire women, but promote them is Williams-Sonoma CEO Laura Alber. Having worked her way up the company's ranks from an entry-level position to CEO, Alber says she's aware of her influence as one of the few female leaders in her industry.
"I think there's not enough role models of women, different types of women, in senior jobs," she tells CNBC. "I think that's what we really need to change, and something that drives me every day. It's one of the reasons why I've really stuck with it because I realize it's bigger than just me in this job. I can inspire young women and show them that you can be in this job not just for a short period of time, but for a long period of time."
Alber started her career in retail as a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate who moved to the west coast without any job prospects or connections.
"To have had a mentor would have been comforting," she says. "On the other hand, being uncomfortable sometimes leads to the best outcome."
She worked three waitressing jobs in San Francisco before landing an entry-level job at the Gap, a job she says she poured everything into. After the Gap, Alber scored an entry-level role at Williams-Sonoma and worked her way up to become CEO of the company in 2010.
Today, Alber says more than 53 percent of VP-and-above positions at Williams-Sonoma are occupied by women, and credits the company's demographic makeup to lack of biases in the hiring and promotion process.
"You know for us, it's really about performance. It's about performance at every level and that is the only measure," she says. "It's not about gender. It's not about race. It's not about sexual orientation or age. It's about performance and that's really very simple."
She says Williams-Sonoma has been able to role model diversity throughout all levels of the company, as women hold high-level positions in engineering, products and supply chain.
"I think you know role modeling is very important," she says. "When I say that I mean having enough people, diverse people, in the company and in all levels helps other people feel comfortable."
Alber reveals that her personal career mantra has always been to own every position she's held and to solve any issues that will make a permanent difference in a company, an outlook that's helped her in her role as CEO.
"I think because I was able to do that and bring people along, I ended up getting bigger responsibility," she says. "It was never, for me, about getting the promotion. It was about making an impact."
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