Mary Barra made history this month when it was announced she'll become General Motors' first female chief executive officer.
Over a span of 33 years with General Motors, Barra, 51, has moved up the ladder from intern to chief of global product development and soon CEO, succeeding Dan Akerson on Jan. 15. When she starts her new post, Barra will join the ranks of 23 other women who head Fortune 500 companies. What's more, she'll be the first woman to lead a major automaker.
[Read: 7 Female CEOs You Need to Know.]
For some women, aiming for a higher office can be stalled by worries about work-life balance. In an October Pew Research Center survey, 51 percent of working mothers said being a working parent made it harder to advance their career, compared with 16 percent of working fathers who felt the same way. Other women may feel held back by sexism in the workplace. According to an August 2013 Gallup poll of 1,309 adults, about 15 percent of U.S. working women surveyed said they have at some point felt passed over for a promotion or opportunity at work on account of gender.
Still, here are some encouraging reasons why more women might be moving up in the workforce.
A vast majority of women want to move up. While not all women want to join Barra in the C-suite, many want to move up the company ladder. That's according to a 2012 report from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which showed 69 percent of women have the desire to advance to positions beyond mid-level management.
For men, the number stood at 74 percent. "Typically, we do see more men expressing interest in moving up. Partly because women are more likely to have obligations or burdens at home," says Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies work and family issues. As the October Pew survey revealed, working mothers are far more likely than working fathers to experience family-related career interruptions that result in reduced work hours, taking a significant amount of time off, turning down a promotion or even quitting a job.
But for women who advance to more executive positions, they can not only gain a greater say in the overall direction of the company, but also create the kind of schedule flexibility that allows them to address personal needs such as the social activities of their children or caring for a family member. "You get greater control than when you're in middle management," says Joanna Barsh, director emeritus of McKinsey & Company. "It's control both personally and professionally."
Companies want to accommodate that desire. "What's changing inside [companies] is that the HR department and leaders are saying together, 'We need to make this environment more conducive to women to level the playing field.' And they are," Barsh says. According to a 2013 National Association for Female Executives report on the top 50 companies for executive women, many employers – including AT&T, Bank of America and Target – are making an effort to create a "culture that identifies, promotes and nurtures successful women." Of the companies on the list, all of them offer executive coaching, management leadership training and feature a program to identify high-potential women.
[Read: What Women Want – At Work.]
Many people are indifferent about the gender of their boss. An August 2013 Gallup poll of 2,059 adults showed that U.S. workers preferred a male boss (35 percent) over a female boss (23 percent). Meanwhile, 41 percent said the gender of their boss made no difference. Cohen cautions against reading too much into a single poll. However, he notes that the 41 percent who expressed indifference marks a more casual attitude in the workforce about gender. "The willingness of people to not have a preference reflects mostly their attitude that it should not matter," he says. "What should matter is the way that managers perform in terms of their employees and the goals of their organization."
Still, a preference for female bosses is rising. When Gallup first asked the preference question in 1953, only 5 percent of respondents said they preferred a female boss, compared with 23 percent today. And among respondents who have worked for a woman, the preference for the gender of their boss is even. A positive experience working for a woman, especially when it comes to male employees, can shift perceptions, according to Barsh, who is also the author of "How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life." "That's why we start to get changes in cultural norms – when men actually get experience," Barsh says.