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Female executives see barriers for women

American universities graduate more women than men, and women comprise just under half the US workforce. Yet women remain largely missing from the top echelons of corporate America.

Fewer than 25 of Fortune 500 corporations are headed by women.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought a group of high-ranking women to discuss this key issue in the wake of Facebook chief operation officer Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

The book has provoked controversy, with competing views about the challenges women face. Here, they talk about barriers in the workplace. The remarks have been edited for length and style.

QUESTION: Women make up 14 per cent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, even though women earn more college degrees than men, according to the most recent Catalyst study. What are the major obstacles women face and what are the best ways to overcome them?

LORI KILBERG, partner at the US real estate law firm Hartman Simons & Wood: One of the studies shows there is just a huge collection of women at the upper management level knocking on the door to the C-suite, but never making it there. They're waiting for recognition (or) they're not putting themselves forward, and they decide to opt out. They decide - so many of them - to become entrepreneurs. They decide to take a different path.

Women need sponsors - much more than mentors, but someone who will actually advocate for them within their companies - the way that informally happens naturally with a lot of men, where they get pulled up and presented.

Women, unfortunately, are very hesitant to tout their own accomplishments.

And women say: "Well I haven't done that yet, so I don't know that I'm an expert in that. And I'm not quite ready to take that next step".

Men will take the jump, based on potential. They'll think: "I don't know how to do that. But I can do that. Of course, I can do that".

So, we have to become more risk-takers. We have to take fear out of the equation. If we could eliminate fear and guilt, there'd be no stopping us.

KAT COLE, president of Cinnabon: The definition of success is very personal and not every woman wants to be a chief executive. Not every man wants to be a CEO.

There is an element of mentoring, connections and advocacy that women have to seek for themselves and other people. Men and women have a role in providing advocacy for women who are moving up.

WENDY CLARK, senior vice president at Coca Cola: When your leaders get serious about this, your organisation gets serious about this.

About five years ago, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent looked around the organisation. The urban myth is that his daughter was graduating from college and was asking him tough questions. And he looked at the data: Women control $US20 trillion ($A19.57 trillion) of spending power around the world. They influence 70 per cent of consumer purchases. They are more of the college graduates now. They are more of the talent pool.

We put a women's leadership council in place five years ago. We set very discrete goals that we are measured to.

We do quarterly updates to him on our progress. He literally looks at us and goes: "It's not enough". He is restless and relentless about changing the numbers.

So, when you have a leader that is leaning into this, all of a sudden, a lot of things start drifting away, a lot of the barriers.

Lift as you climb. Women can help other women. And I think, too often, women lean away from helping other women.

KILBERG: What you said just so resonates with me. And is the answer maybe, as you said, the corporations leaning in and changing that dynamic? Or is it also telling young women that this is a true career path, that this is something they can achieve and will be gratifying and rewarding? And they can do it and still have a family.

KELLY REGAL, executive vice president of Turner Broadcasting System: We have to address the unconscious bias. That's one of the things I really respected about the book - all the data in it. What's ingrained as we're raising children, and what boys versus girls differentiate in early years. It can be hard to talk about. But we have to figure out a way to get men to the table, as well.

MCCLURE: As a student at Emory, I hadn't even started the first day of the first year of law, and I was told, "Black students at Emory don't do well." I think we have to be very careful about the messaging that we send. Because it ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy for some people. Because you believe that it's not because you could put forth more effort but because the circumstances around you dictate the outcome.

And we need to have the discussion at a much younger stage, as opposed to waiting until you get to the glass ceiling.