Wanna Break That Glass Ceiling? Get Rid of That Chip

Female Business Executive
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Breaking the proverbial glass ceiling is going to take more than an organizational hammer. Although every swing is absolutely necessary from that direction, creating environments in which all people can do their best work, women must be willing to chip away at self-limitations.

(Read More: A Titan's How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling)

A shared responsibility model is needed to change workforce data that continue to show a dearth of women at the top. For example, the Korn/Ferry 500 CHRO database shows that 58 percent of the chief human resources officers (CHROs) are male. From HR to R&D, companies need to examine what they can do to attract, develop, and retain female talent along with their male counterparts.

Organizational changes, particularly around flexibility in how work gets accomplished (which appeals not only to women with children, but men as well), help crack barriers to advancement. For example, in one organization, promotion into the leadership ranks only went to those who had international experience, positions that were typically given to people in their 30s. But that third decade coincides with when many women start their families.

The company's solution was to offer international assignments to promising young executives in their mid- and upper-20s. It's a great example of leveraging reality, while making sure women get a fair opportunity.

(Read More: Why are People Leaning on "Lean In"?)

Other organizational changes include making sure women have access to challenging assignments that are visible and significant to the organization. Women don't need to be seen as worker bees—this is about showcasing talent and the contribution that goes along with it. And, if companies say they are committed to developing and promoting female and male talent, then decision-makers at the highest level need to be held accountable to making that happen (which will also help ensure it becomes a cultural value in the work environment).

Women, too, have to do their part, which begins with a self-audit—an honest self-assessment on everything from how well they anticipate and manage life challenges (which, of course, include work) to how well they do in self-care. Life, as they say, needs to be lived by design—not default; how are women creating opportunities for themselves?

Two big emotional roadblocks are guilt and ambivalence.

Guilt is the byproduct of perfectionism, wanting to be perfect in everything—the perfect mother, spouse/partner, daughter, sister, manager, entrepreneur… Against a reality of a finite number of hours in the day, women are faced with choices that may sometimes feel like triage. Women also need to accept that their jobs are not going to be "perfect"; all too often, women will not take a job unless it meets their top-ten criteria. A man will often settle if it meets four.

Ambivalence shows up in a variety of ways, such as accepting the fact that the majority of college graduates in the U.S. are women and that women, when given an assignment, typically outperform expectations—yet women account for only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Countering ambivalence means women need to look at how they were raised, culturally and generationally. What messages were they given about success, femininity, whether self-promotion is a virtue or a vice (etc.)?

Deeply ingrained and emotionally charged beliefs and cultural messages shape the way women view themselves, including in the work world. Without a courageous self-assessment and a willingness to change their attitudes, women will be less likely to demand and seize their fair share of opportunities.

It's time for women to move to the 'locus of control' in their careers. Then, as organizations increase their flexibility and adaptability to attract and retain talent, powerful hammers will crack the ceiling in both directions.

(Read More: Is Sexism Behind the Yahoo Uproar?)

Audra M. Bohannon is Principal of Global Novations—a Korn/Ferry International Company, and Kim Shanahan is Managing Director of the HR Center of Expertise for Korn/Ferry. Korn/Ferry International is the world's largest executive recruitment firm and a premier talent development organization.