This is what women have to do to become CEO

Fortune 500 female CEOs: Growing in number, but still rare
Fortune 500 female CEOs: Growing in number, but still rare

Believe in yourself.

May sound like corny advice, but it works for successful female CEOs.

In an Oxford University study charting global CEO success, 151 male and female CEOs talked about making it to the corner office. But surprise, surprise -- the men and the women had different career paths.

Female CEOs said success came when they invested in their own career development. Researchers identified three "self themes" -- self-acceptance, self-development and self-management -- common to the female leaders.

Related: The problem with the lack of female leaders

Female CEOs are still underrepresented worldwide. In the history of the Fortune 500, only 64 women have made the list.

The study showed that while men generally rely on networks, mentors and other people to help them up the corporate ladder, women instead reported that they observed others to inform their own individual senses of leadership.

"There's not a big network at the top to pull women up yet," said Amanda Moss-Cowan, assistant professor of management at The University of Rhode Island.

Moss-Cowan noticed a difference in how male and female CEOs discussed their "defining moments" -- the instances that set them on the CEO track. They see these moments as indicators of "self-acceptance," one of the keys to CEO success.

"[Women] didn't really see themselves as leaders until they were already in an organization," says Moss-Cowan. "Then they started to see their own potential."

While many of the male CEOs referenced a defining moment that happened for them in early life (like leading a sports team, for example), the female CEOs instead pointed to events that happened once they were in the workforce: when they failed, grew, or otherwise recognized inner drive.

"You had to make the choice you wanted to be a female CEO," said Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, a women's networking group.

"I never understood that I just brought a different kind of strength to the table," she says of her own career path. "I had to grow into my shoes ... no one handed me the keys and said 'OK, it's your turn to be CEO.'"

Related: How to research company culture -- before you take the job

Women in the study also prioritized "self-development," the process by which they prepared for the responsibilities of higher leadership. They asked for assignments, demanded more responsibility and crafted a management style.

In the "self-management" stages, when women are determining what leadership style best suits them, they're often pressured to combine stereotypically masculine traits, like assertiveness, with feminine ones, like nurturing.

But men's views of women also matter, according to Andromachi Athanasopoulou, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Queen Mary University of London and associate fellow in executive education at the University of Oxford. Especially since they continue to dominate the upper echelons of corporate America.

"Men would say things like, 'You still have to maintain your femininity,'" Athanasopoulou says. "For a woman, they see if they're too pushy, they don't get things done. Men don't accept that. So women tend to feel they have tot span both of these demands of being assertive, or being a leader, and yet being empathetic and transformational in their leadership style."

Like the women in the study, Zalis says she recognized that the CEO title was a possibility only once she was in the workforce. From there she developed her own management style, combining soft and hard traits.

"These embedded perceptions really do define culture or expectation," she says of stereotypes keeping women out of the upper ranks. "Men are recognized for their potential, women for past performance."

Of course, not every woman who takes these steps will make it to the C-suite. But, both Moss-Cowan and Athanasopoulou point out, there's already research that examines the limits to women's success. They wanted to examine another side.

"Rather than emphasizing the barriers, looking at women as victims, we're looking at the women who have succeeded in molding their careers, in being in charge of their careers," Moss-Cowan says.

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