Despite data that shows having women in leadership positions improves a company’s financial returns, the number of women at the top of large companies remains astonishingly low.

According to the Pew Research Center, 26 women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, representing 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, Andrea Newell reported as part of our ongoing series on women’s leadership. Pew’s most recent numbers (2013) report that only 1 out of 6 board members for Fortune 500 companies are women. The glass ceiling may be shrinking, but it still very much a reality for millions of women in the business world.

For women who hope to be part of the movement that turns those numbers around, the first step is to gain leadership experience. Here are 10 ideas on how to get started.

1. Talk to your supervisors …
For leadership opportunities inside the office, the best place to start is with your supervisors. If they’re worth their salt, they will help you develop a “stretch” project of which you can take ownership. Big or small, the project can help you learn on the job while helping the team, and your bosses will likely be impressed that you asked.
2. … Or just raise your hand
We all know that moment in the staff meeting: The bosses ask for someone to take the lead on researching a new project or building out a new resource and then … crickets. Take initiative, and be the one to raise your hand! Your supervisors will be grateful you rescue them, and — even if the task seems inconsequential at first — it may very well open the door for a leadership opportunity down the road.
3. Take a course
Someone who knows her speciality and constantly works to improve her skills has all the trappings of a good leader. To fit the bill, plan on taking at least one course that enhances your skill-set each year.
In many cases, your company will reimburse you for continuing education related to your position, but don’t assume you have to shell out a pile of cash in order to improve your skills. Your yearly self-enhancement could be a free webinar, an online workshop or an accelerated training program — whatever it takes to make sure you get the latest information that’s relevant to your field. If you’re interested in the sustainability space, TriplePundit’s GRI Certified Sustainability Reporting Courses can give you a leg-up.
4. Do some volunteering
Helping others is a great way to gain valuable experience while making yourself feel good. Pick a cause that matters to you, and search out local opportunities where you can lend a hand.
And don’t be shy about your desire for a leadership role. Saying something as simple as, “I’m passionate about your cause and would love to help out in a more meaningful way through leadership opportunities,” can go a long way. Many local volunteer-based organizations have very few paid employees, if any, and they’ll likely be thrilled to find someone willing to take on a leadership role for free.
5. Oh, and you can volunteer in the office, too!
Looking for more leadership opportunities in the office? Green teams and other workplace volunteer opportunities, especially those outside your main purview, can be just the ticket.
If your office doesn’t have a green team or is lacking in volunteer opportunities, talk to your boss about getting this going. It may seem intimidating to knock on a supervisor’s door with something not directly related to your everyday tasks. But doing so proves you care about and are engaged with your job, and also positions you as a de facto leader of your new green team.

6. Get active in your community
Taking on a leadership role within your own community looks fantastic on your resume. Again, it’s important to zero-in on something that interests you, or you’re likely to burn out with the added commitment. Passionate about preserving historic landmarks? Look into positions at your local historical society or zoning hearing board. Love green spaces? Your local horticultural society may be a perfect fit.
Just remember: Your leadership experience — both inside and outside the workplace — should reflect your personality. So, keep that in mind when choosing how you can best land a hand in your neighborhood.
7. Plan an event
Who said leadership can’t be fun? Try your hand at managing a ‘team’ by planning a big event for a friend or family member.
Whether it’s a wedding, a retirement party or a killer camping trip, doing the planning can help you gain valuable skills, like getting everyone on board, developing a plan and getting people to go along with it, and making sure everything that needs to happen happens. These skills are necessary in a leader and will serve you well in future endeavors, whether it’s a new project in the office or managing the guest list for your cousin’s bat mitzvah.
8. Get sporty
Looking to get active while honing your leadership skills? An adult sports team in your area provides the best of both worlds. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Ernst & Young’s Women Athletes Business Network and espnW, the majority of women executives surveyed say that a sport background can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential, and has a positive influence on hiring decisions.
9. Look to your family
Research indicates that women are far more likely than men to take time off from work to care for a child or a sick family member. While some have pointed to this trait as a reason for the gender pay gap, it’s actually a quality that can make you better leader.
Things like looking after an ailing relative, babysitting a youngster or planning a family event can all help you gain leadership skills, including empathy, managing stress and speaking on behalf of others.
10. Do something for yourself
It may sound counterintuitive, but the first person you successfully lead may be yourself. To help realize the born leader inside of you, commit to a big personal project and see it through from start to finish. This will not only give you an idea of what it takes to lead, but also leave you with a feeling of fulfillment — which makes you feel more engaged in all aspects of your life, including work.

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