How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

What it takes to become a female Fortune 500 CEO

May 21, 2013: 12:03 PM ET

As Marissa Mayer stood with David Karp to announce Yahoo's acquisition of Tumblr on Monday, you couldn't help but notice the vast educational divide between the two principals.

Karp dropped out of Bronx High School of Science and went on to create a blogging platform worth $1.1 billion.

Tumblr's Karp and Yahoo's Mayer

Tumblr's Karp and Yahoo's Mayer

Mayer graduated with honors from Stanford, earning a B.S. in Symbolic Systems and a Master's in Computer Science--then went to Google (GOOG) as its first female engineer and on to Yahoo (YHOO) to become, at 37, the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500. (Until Facebook (FB) Mark Zuckerberg nabbed that distinction.)

Mayer's traditional tech cred clearly helped propel her to corporate America's highest level. What's surprising, given the well-known dearth of women earning tech degrees, is that Mayer's female compatriots who lead Fortune 500 companies also tend to have earned diplomas in science or math or some other technical area. More than half of the 20 female Fortune 500 CEOs graduated with so-called STEM degrees--in science, tech, engineering or mathematics.

Granted, it's no surprise that IBM (IBM) chief  Ginni Rometty graduated with high honors in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern. Or that Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns and DuPont (DD) chief Ellen Kullman studied mechanical engineering in college. Burns, who went on to get a Master's in mechanical engineering at Columbia, rose from summer intern at Xerox to lead the company.

But who would have expected these women chiefs to have STEM backgrounds?...

PepsiCo's (PEP) Indra Nooyi studied chemistry, physics, and math at Madras Christian College in India before getting her graduate degree at Indian Institute of Management.

Avon's (AVP) Sheri McCoy has a B.S. in textile chemistry from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, plus a Master's in chemical engineering from Princeton and an MBA from Rutgers.

Irene Rosenfeld, who leads Mondelez (MDLZ)--split off from Kraft Foods--has a Ph.D. in Marketing and Statistics, plus an MBA and B.A. in Psychology, from Cornell.

Ingredion (INGR) CEO Ilene Gordon has a theory. She believes that women, more than men, need an analytical education to succeed in business. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of MIT, with a B.S. in mathematics and an MBA, Gordon began her career as a math teacher and moved to Boston Consulting Group, where she noticed that women without analytical chops "often get snowed early in their careers."

"Women don't have the confidence" or the clout, Gordon says, to put forth ideas with the finesse that men tend to have. She has five women, including her CFO, on her 13-member executive team at Ingredion, a $6.5 billion ingredient company. Speaking as a boss who is lonely at the top, at least by gender standards, Gordon adds, "An analytical degree puts you on par or ahead of the men."

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