The climb to the top of the corporate ladder for women has been painfully slow at best, or just plain stalled. Just 7% of the CFOs in the Fortune 500 were women in 2007. That figure has crept up to 9% to 10% in the last few years. In 2011, women held 14.1% of Fortune 500 executive officer positions compared to 14.4% in 2010, according to a Catalyst study. Meanwhile, women CFOs, on average, earned $1.3 million in 2010, about 16% less than the $1.5 million paid their male counterparts, according to an analysis of pay packages of 1,900 CFOs (including 150 women) at Russell 3000 Index companies from GMI Ratings, a corporate governance consulting firm. What needs to happen for women to pick up the pace in achieving parity with men in the C-suite?

Work-life balance issues, which can be more challenging for women than men, should not be a barrier, says Ellen Johnson, treasurer and senior vice president at advertising and marketing company Interpublic Group, and the mother of three youngsters. A supportive partner and the willingness to put in the time, energy and commitment required, as well as to make trade-offs, can help women move forward, Johnson says. "I think things will change," she says, pointing to Interpublic's record as one of just six companies in the Fortune 500 with 40% representation of women on its board of directors.

Johnson says attaining a board seat would be a big boost to her career and she is encouraged by the opportunity to network in the office with Interpublic's women board members. She credits "the tone from the top" for making women directors a priority and says diversity is particularly important for a company in which people are the only asset. "We need to understand our clients, and our clients are completely diverse because we are a global company," Johnson says. "To have that perspective, you really need to have global inclusiveness at the top."

Diane Ford, controller and vice president at Integrys Energy Group in Chicago, was the first woman hired at the company almost 37 years ago and started out "at the bottom of the barrel" in accounting. She describes herself as "a barrier-breaker" who has had "opportunities galore."

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