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Why every woman’s first job should be her hardest

December 6, 2014, 4:00 PM UTC
Dean Sally Blount
Photograph by Callie LIpkin

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How can women rise to the C-suite? is written by Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Here’s the good news: Women are now a dominant force in higher education. Nearly 60% of students entering our nation’s top universities are women, according to a recent report by NBC News. And, once there, they graduate at higher rates and tend to perform better in the classroom than men.

Now the not-so-good news: Despite their success in school, women still aren’t getting to the top in the workplace. According to research from Catalyst, only 4.8% of this year’s Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs and only 17% of directors of U.S. companies are female. And, these ratios represent an all-time high.

So what do we — as business leaders, educators, mentors and parents — do about this? How do we get a greater number of intelligent, talented women into the C-suite in business and beyond?

One answer is clear: we need more women to enter business right out of college, and we need more of them to take the biggest, boldest job they can land because right now, they are not. For example, currently women from top universities are 50% less likely than their male peers to pursue jobs that provide some of the best training grounds, such as investment banking or management consulting. And overall women earn only 82% of what men do one year after leaving college, according to the American Association of University Women.

So if we are going to get more women to the top and equalize pay along the way, we need to encourage more women to challenge themselves from the beginning. We must push them to take the jobs that offer high levels of responsibility; that build their skills; that test their abilities; and that affiliate them with the best organizations and individuals in the private sector. That’s how talent gets developed.

I know these types of jobs often require long days, late nights and travel. And I know that makes them less appealing to some young women. But the early years are not forever, and while concepts like mission and work/life balance are absolutely important, they shouldn’t be the focus at the start of a career. At the launch, it’s most important to think big, act bravely and recognize that the first job can set the stage for an entire career.

Immediately after earning my undergraduate degree, I took a job at BCG, and it was hard work. But the long hours and challenging work taught me about business fundamentals and helped me develop critical problem-solving and communication skills, as well as bit of grit – all of which have been instrumental to my career. And while I ultimately decided that being a management consultant was not for me, that first job set me on a trajectory that led me to pursue a Ph.D., rise through the ranks of academia and become what I am today: the first female dean of a top-ranked business school.

I am not alone. Many of the most successful women I know from government, nonprofits and corporations did exactly what I did. From the start, they went for the biggest business jobs they could find. That set them on a path where they could ultimately create lives of meaning and impact. So, let’s make sure more young women follow in these footsteps. It’s our job to help more females ascend to the C-suite. It’s our responsibility to parent, mentor, hire and promote the next generation of female business leaders. And when I say “our,” I mean men and women because, we’re in this together.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How can women rise to the C-suite?

My secret for rising to the C-suite by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How working moms can rise to the C-suite by Tracy Brady, VP of Agency Communications for Hill Holiday.

How failure could get you to the C-suite by Angélica Fuentes, CEO of Omnilife.

Why hard work won’t get you to the C-suite by Stephanie Ruhle, Editor-at-Large, Bloomberg News and Anchor/Managing Editor, BloombergTV.

How can women rise to the C-suite? by Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company.