Meet eight executive women who fought their way to the top.

First, the good news: Women comprise 46.7 percent of the U.S. labor force and more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations. The bad news? "Despite their sustained participation and economic influence, women have experienced a shockingly slow rate of progress advancing into business leadership--regardless of industry," said Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, in a report to Congress's Joint Economic Committee in fall 2010.

Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit research group, found that women represent a mere 13.5 percent of executive officers at Fortune 500 companies and just 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Fortunately, the picture at smaller businesses isn't so bleak--particularly in Central Ohio.

Columbus C.E.O. sat down with eight women who beat the odds--and sometimes personally trying circumstances--to advance to the top of their respective professions. From the founder of foodie destination Katzinger's Delicatessen to the head of Grange Insurance's human resources department, each shared the highs and lows of their work, their motivations, inspirations and advice on helping women workers succeed.

Michelle Adams

Michelle Adams was working for a Cincinnati marketing agency when husband Scott Adams got a job offer with the Limited. The couple moved to Columbus, and at the urging of both her boss and her husband, Adams took the leap into self-employment. Despite some trepidation, she started Prism Marketing Communications in 1995.

Shortly after daughter Rebecca's birth that first year, Prism landed its first big fish: Cardinal Health. Since then, the full-service marketing, advertising, public relations and digital firm has grown to 15 employees with clients such as Worthington Industries and Smoot Construction.

Outside of work, Adams (Prism's president and CEO) serves on the boards of COSI, alma mater Capital University and the New Albany Chamber of Commerce, and volunteers for her church.

What's the best part of your job? "I like the creativity of it all. ... I also enjoy learning about a lot of different businesses and how they work, how they function, how they make money. I think that's fascinating," says Adams, 43.

What's the worst part? The dreaded office politics. While Prism has remained free of such issues, the same cannot be said for all of its clients, Adams says. "Our philosophy is to find the problem and get things done to move the business. Oftentimes, situations come up that slow us down or can completely impede our efforts."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? Adams and her husband are parents to Rebecca, 14; Meredith, 12; Joseph, 7; and Daniel, 3. Adams calls the adoption of her youngest from Russia "one of the greatest blessings of our lives." With four children and a business, there are long days. "But I really try to prioritize my kids, their appointments and activities," she says.

A "great support system" helps, too, she says. Her husband quit the Limited after Meredith's birth; the accountant now does bookkeeping for Prism and a couple other local businesses, but can attend to their children's needs much of the time. Adams' parents, Dave and Marty Ritchey, also help.

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "Women in general have good prioritization, multitasking, focusing on what really needs to get done to move things, which is critical in the service business ... and is really critical in a small business."

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? "I've had so many," Adams says. "If I had to choose just one person, it would be my husband, but I think when you do something like this, especially the working and the feeling good about yourself and good about leaving your kids every day, there is a team of people that supports you and gets you through it." Moreover, "I've had huge mentors, some of whom are still in my life, some of whom have come in and out of my life."

What are your goals for the next five years? Adams hopes to remain close to her daughters as they navigate their teens while continuing to challenge herself at work. "Right now, we're looking at opening an office in Cincinnati, because we have many clients there."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? Adams says businesses would be wise to adopt flexible arrangements to keep high-achieving women in the workforce and up-to-date on technology and trends once they've had children. "From my perspective, when you give women flexibility, they give you more in 30 hours a week than a lot of employees give you in 50 hours."

Doreen DeLaney

Doreen DeLaney has come a long way since the days when she qualified for free lunches while growing up in the inner city of Columbus. She was hired in August as vice president - chief human resources officer and community relations for Grange Insurance. The job was a journey home for the 41-year-old after 15 years outside Ohio.

After earning a bachelor's degree in economics from Ohio Wesleyan University and a law degree from Ohio State University, she entered Bank One's executive development program in 1994. After a job with Anderson Consulting and Computer Sciences Corp. in Charlotte, DeLaney held management jobs with C&A Insurance and mortgage lender Countrywide.

When Bank of America acquired Countrywide in 2008, DeLaney took a year off and traveled to South Africa on a mission trip. "I felt brave on my part, given that I've been working since I was 14 and came from very humble beginnings," she says. "I needed to get some work-life balance and some perspective."

DeLaney joined First Data in Atlanta as senior vice president of human resources and got engaged to her husband, Brian Crawley, in 2009. Bob James, former CEO and president of Grange and a mentor from her days at C&A and Countrywide, lured DeLaney back to Columbus.

DeLaney oversees Grange's 1,500 associates, as well as training for 3,000 independent agents. She is also responsible for community relations. "We have 60 officers and 45 of them sit on boards for nonprofits. You can't give it all financially, so to be able to give that expertise and to support our community's nonprofit organizations is just a wonderful thing to be a part of."

What's the best part of your job? "I have the one job that I'm able to impact our people, our associates. Until we have computers running the world, every aspect is about your people."

What's the worst part? She was heavily involved in a $30 million expense reduction, which included staff cuts. "I think when you have to impact someone's life negatively, like when we had our reduction in force. ... The positive part of that is when you do it the right way and you help people and bridge them to that next opportunity."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? "It's something I've made a commitment to, now being here with my husband and my family. ... You have to have that for your team, because you model for them. It's important for me to walk the walk."

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "I don't like to make the distinction so much between men and women. I think it's just more important for people to know that women can compete at this level," she says. "It's important for any management team to have diversity of thought. Women often come with a different set of experiences than men do."

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? DeLaney names her mother, Jackie DeLaney, who "was very driven about making a better life for us. ... In my house, I really believed I could do anything."

What are your goals for the next five years? DeLaney aims to mesh her operations with the company's strategic plan and to develop associates and managers. "From a personal standpoint, it's to create a great family here in Columbus, me and my husband, and to be a part of this community."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? "We have to make sure we model that, and I think Grange is doing a great job in that regard," DeLaney says, noting that two of the company's three business lines are run by female presidents. "If we want to see additional women here, then we need to be the ones out there mentoring the next generation and networking with them."

Mindy Derr

Mindy Derr, founder and executive director of Fore Hope, grew up in a golfing family in Loudenville. Her family's farm was located across the street from a public course, where Derr played and worked. Derr founded Fore Hope in 1989 in honor of her father, Guy, after Lou Gehrig's disease left him unable to play. He died in 2003.

Fore Hope is a therapeutic golf program for people with disabilities that offers lessons with professional golfers as well as help from volunteers and a staff recreational therapist. The nonprofit serves about 300 people annually.

Derr, 57, left her job as exploring executive of the Boy Scouts of America in Vermillion to start Fore Hope. She moved the program to Central Ohio in 1990. "I knew in my gut that I needed to come back to Central Ohio. With all the hospitals and the Memorial Tournament, there are more opportunities to impact more people here. It's a great golfing and giving community," Derr says.

The nonprofit's $200,000 budget, which includes a small stipend for the pros, comes through grants from the U.S. Golf Association and other organizations, 36 individual investors who give $1,000 a year, and support from the Memorial Tournament and corporations such as Scotts Miracle-Gro Company.

Fore Hope has used Safari Golf Club as its home course since 2006. The program's biggest fundraisers are its annual Memorial Tournament breakfast-which includes tournament tickets for each of the approximately 250 guests-and the Guy Derr Adaptive Tournament in September for clients and corporate partners.

Over the years, Derr has helped Fore Hope grow to raise a total of $4 million in revenue and in-kind services. "In all reality, this is my life. This is for my dad," Derr says.

What's the best part of your job? "Helping people, bringing together the love of golf and the memory of my dad. Those are what get me out of bed in the morning."

What's the worst part? "It's never done. Sometimes you like to draw that line in the sand, but you always have to keep going."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? Fore Hope's 20th anniversary helped Derr realize that she needed more balance in her life. "I've been trying to return to the game of golf and have been getting some golf instruction from our pros," she says. Derr also loves gardening and traveling.

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "Compassion, detail, gratitude and follow-up"

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? Derr names her parents, who tilled the soil on their Loudonville farm. "My dad was so strong and so balanced. My mom [Jean] was the innovator and the one who brought things together."

What are your goals for the next five years? Derr plans to move Fore Hope from its Dublin Road office to a new headquarters with a pitch-and-putt area and a few short holes for training. She also hopes to reach more clients, particularly veterans, and find long-term donations and support from individuals and companies.

How can employers ensure that women achieve high-ranking positions? "They have to be open to promote women in business in their own businesses and in the corporate arena, as well. How do you do that? It's education for women in colleges, in high schools and internship opportunities for women to get their feet wet and get a sense of the world."

Allison Finkelstein

Allison Finkelstein headed up business development for a $4 billion business unit of Eaton Corp. when she decided to stay home with her children and work on special projects. When her youngest--Elisabeth, now 10--went to kindergarten, Finkelstein sought a full-time job, with a caveat: "In my mind, if you're giving up time with your family, there's got to be some real meaning to your work." She found it at TechColumbus, which she joined in August 2007.

Finkelstein, 48, is Tech Columbus's assistant vice president of investments. The Harvard MBA-holder manages eight pre-seed funds, 100 portfolio companies and approximately $30 million in assets under management. "The checks are a lot smaller, but the impact you can make with $50,000 or $200,000, depending on the situation, is really cool," she says.

Finkelstein also tries to make her own impact: She and husband Mark set up a foundation a decade ago in honor of son David, who died suddenly at age 2.5. The foundation benefits the White Pine Stables Therapeutic Riding Center in Galena (Elisabeth, who has epilepsy and learning difficulties, is a student) and awards scholarships to Westerville high school seniors who have been impacted by the death of a loved one.

What's the best part of your job? "I love working with the companies and trying to figure out the best utilization of these funds and how we can help them get from A to B with really limited funds," says Finkelstein. "And then when I look at the products that these companies are coming out with, it's hard not to get excited."

What's the worst part? The competition for TechColumbus grants is tough. "When you have a really strong round, not everyone's going to get the money."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? "I don't think you'll ever have complete balance--you'll just have times in your life when things will be easier." Mark, a private investor, works from home and has a flexible schedule. Babysitters and friends also help. "I think you have to have a really good network, whatever that's made of, to not go crazy."

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "Women tend to be better communicators and better listeners--not that men can't do that also--but I think it adds a great thing to the mix and leads to a sometimes more thoughtful output."

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? Finkelstein cites people who try to overcome challenges, who focus on the positive and who try to improve themselves and help others. Two such individuals are daughters Jennifer, 14 (David's surviving twin), and Elisabeth. "I see the challenges that my younger daughter goes through to do the things that are easy for you and me, and I am inspired by her determination to do it. Yet at the same time, I see my older daughter, who deals so compassionately with a special needs sibling, who has dealt with the death of her twin ... and yet she is extremely positive and always looking to help others."

What are your goals for the next five years? She aims to travel with her family and hopes to see either the TechColumbus Pre-Seed Fund or the Ohio TechAngels, of which she's a member, fund a women-owned and -led business.

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? It takes a conscious decision to recruit and create a base of talented women workers, says Finkelstein. "You have to make sure they're in the organization, and help them gain the skills to move upward."

Kathy Gatterdam

Kathy Gatterdam is the first woman to own the Columbus Coal & Lime Company, now in its fifth generation. The 122-year-old business passed to her from father Larry Neirmeyer. Despite being the first female owner, Gatterdam says she's never tried to differentiate herself in the male-dominated industry.

"I'm one of the boys and I don't really distinguish myself as a girl," Gatterdam, now the company's CEO, says. "I was treated very well, and I think a lot of that is that people respect my father."

Gatterdam, 45, studied chemistry at the University of Michigan and earned a law degree from Capital University in 1992. She joined Columbus Coal & Lime in 1995 to help her father with legal work including product certifications and material safety sheets. Niermeyer died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. "I really enjoyed being here with him," Gatterdam says. "That's the reason I'm here, spending more time with my dad."

Gatterdam is the president of the Franklinton Board of Trade and a past president and current board member of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio. She also is a member and past board member of the Columbus Rotary, as well as district chair for its Youth Exchange.

What's the best part of your job? "I really enjoy working with our customers and being helpful. Our job here is to find the appropriate product in the budget that they need us to be in. It really is a fun adventure trying to get what they want in the time frame and at the price point that they want it."

What's the worst part? "Recently, the most difficult part is not having my dad here to talk to and to share all my joys and struggles with."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? Gatterdam says her husband, Rich, daughters Kate (16) and Emily (15), and her mother, Diane Niermeyer, are supportive. "Without my husband and our kids, I don't think I could. They really stand behind me. My mom has been a great support as well. She really tries so hard to make my life equal."

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "I see difference in my dad's style from mine. ... His way is more telling and mine is more asking. The difference in gender appears, but the style is very similar in the way we handle things."

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? Aside from her parents, Gatterdam names developer Bob Weiler, who taught her at Capital University. "I'm very much a behind-the-scenes person and I don't like to put myself out in front. Bob is very similar in that way. He does a lot for our community, but doesn't necessarily need to tell people everything he does."

What are your goals for the next five years? Preparing her daughters for college is tops personally. Gatterdam also sees growth for her business and change in the industry. "Columbus Coal & Lime is continuing to move forward digitally with social media and we're working toward being out there in front of everyone as quickly as we can."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? Gatterdam says she sees more female students and entrepreneurs now, and gets calls from women business owners looking for advice. "So many people have helped me through the years. ... I try to pay that back and do the same."

Lisa Huang

After a decade working at large engineering firms, Lisa Huang had had enough. "I thought if I started a company, the quality would be better and I could have a personal touch with clients-and make a profit," she says.

So the electrical engineer with a master's from the University of Manitoba and a Ph.D. from Ohio State started Advanced Engineering Consultants (AEC) in her basement in 1998. Today, the 29-employee firm is headquartered in Grandview Heights with satellite locations in Indiana and Virginia Beach and a shared office space in Cincinnati.

AEC has found its niche working with the federal government, particularly the military. In August 2009, AEC received a $25 million contract for work at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; last year, it won a $12 million contract at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.

Outside of work, Huang is a member of the Ohio Women Organization, competes in table tennis and golf and plays the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese instrument.

What's the best part of your job? A native of China, Huang, 51, says she went into engineering because she enjoyed mathematics, but found pure math dull. As AEC president, Huang doesn't get to do as much of the hands-on work as she'd like, but does work as a project manager, helps employees with presentations and sometimes meets with key clients. "I'm a people person. Working with people is very enjoyable."

What's the worst part? It's tough dealing with poor performers, Huang says. "Some people, they don't do work, and then you've got a headache. ... Then you come to: Do I lay him off or not?"

How do you maintain a work-life balance? AEC's early years often required long hours. She raised son David Li, now 20 and a neuroscience major at Johns Hopkins University, to be independent. "I had to work 12, 16 hours sometimes, especially when I first started my company, and sometimes when I'd get home, he'd already have had dinner and finished his homework and was asleep," Huang recalls. Husband Jack Li, a mechanical engineer at AEC, "is very supportive," she says, particularly in the kitchen. "He's a good cook."

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "For our kind of work, men and women are equal," says Huang. "If a man can do it, a woman can do it. If a woman can do it, a man can do it." Still, she says, women often have to work harder to prove themselves.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? "I always want to be the best," she says. "When I do research, I want to do good. When I play ping-pong, I want to do good. When I play golf, I want to do good, and with our services, I want to do good."

What are your goals for the next five years? Huang says she's already achieved her original goal of growing her business and earning recognition for the quality of its work. She'd like to see that trajectory continue. "If you are satisfied with whatever you have, you're kind of stopped. I always say you have to dream big and set high bars."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? "I always say, ‘Is there any woman engineer we can hire?' If you go to OSU, you can see that the majority are men. There are few women doing engineering work, so we have to look harder." Once women are in a workplace, Huang says, it helps to challenge them with big tasks, provide guidance, trust their decisions and give them opportunities to prove themselves.

Chris Swanson

Chris Swanson began working at One More Time, a secondhand clothing shop in Grandview Heights, during a break from college in summer 1985. Today, she not only owns the shop but has expanded and also opened two more shops under the One More Time brand.

The 44-year-old Swanson was promoted to manager in 1988, taking on more responsibility as owner Kate Holmes began traveling and considering retirement. "I was trusted with the store while she was gone. When she would be gone for a month, I would pretty much run things," Swanson says. "She was ready to retire and I was in the right place at the right time."

Holmes put the shop up for sale in 1995. Swanson's 2-year-old son, Baylor, had just died of a heart problem and she wanted to focus on work. "I had to jump into something else that was going to get my mind off of things and get myself back on track," Swanson says. "I was here 50 to 60 hours a week trying to figure out how to improve it and market it."

Since buying the store, Swanson has added about 5,600 square feet. In 2004, she opened One More Time, Etc. to sell used furniture, following it up with One More Time Plus, for plus-sized shoppers, in 2010.

Outside the store, Swanson sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops as immediate past president and is also a Business Buddy with Nationwide Children's Hospital.

What's the best part of your job? "Knowing that I can help the community clean out their homes, and turn it around and help the other part of the community get things for less, and turn it around again and help the environment with recycling."

What's the worst part? "I really can't say there's a worst part of my job because I still love coming to work every day after 26 years." Swanson does admit she dislikes keeping up with bills and taxes: "It's constant. You think you've got it and then it creeps up on you again."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? "You have to realize that anything that happens at home needs to stay at home." Husband Tom and children Drew (14), Jessica (10) and Jasmine (8) help keep things in perspective. Her mother, Nancy Cowman, keeps the store's front garden in bloom and her father, Bob Cowman, helps with taxes.

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? Organization and compassion are two key strengths, Swanson says. "We come across a lot of people who are bringing in things that are hard to part with or whose family member has passed away." Knowing how to talk to those customers is important, she says.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? "[Holmes] gave me the opportunity to get where I am." Swanson also cites the industry: "The whole resale business is my inspiration because I've seen so many shops grow and expand."

What are your goals for the next five years? "To maintain and strengthen what I have now. [One More Time Plus] is so new that I want to get a good balance before I decide if I'm going to move on."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? "There are a lot more working women out there that are balancing things, and I think if given the opportunity by an owner or manager, then good coaching, good teamwork and good mentorship will help people."

Diane Warren

It was 1984, and Diane and Steve Warren had just returned to Columbus from Chicago with their 9-month-old daughter, Rachel, and few plans to speak of.

One day, she recalls, Steve "just came home and said, ‘Do you want to open a deli?' And I said, ‘I don't care, do you?' And he said, ‘If you do.' And I said, ‘OK'--and it was just that stupid."

Eight months later, the couple put their extensive restaurant backgrounds to work and opened Katzinger's Delicatessen, offering sandwiches, specialty foods, baked bread and catering.

Through the years, the eatery--and its reputation--have grown exponentially. Last year, the deli sold 195,000 sandwiches--an average of more than 534 per day. Celebrity diners have included President Bill Clinton (a coup for Warren, an outspoken advocate for his health-care reform push), musician James Taylor, professional athletes and others. After the Warrens divorced in 2007, Diane Warren became Katzinger's sole owner.

What's the best part of your job? Warren says the great things about Katzinger's are seeing customers' support, staff members' growth and the access to high-quality food. There's also the experience of watching new generations of customers. "Sometimes I'll see them, and I know what are now the grandparents, the kids, who I first saw when they were little babies, and now their babies-that makes me crazy with joy," she says.

What's the worst part? "It's really difficult to bring people on and find out they don't fit the culture, they're not happy, they're bad for the dynamic, all of that. It's really frustrating for all of us."

How do you maintain a work-life balance? "It was a huge issue when Rachel [now 28] was younger, but it really isn't anymore," says Warren. "I had to work a long time to get to that place, but for the last 10 years, I've had much more flexibility with my time, so it's not much of an issue."

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? "I think women are more inclusive, and they want to work with people instead of having people work for them."

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? "My father [Norman Mathless] was a man of great integrity, a man who was quite brilliant and well-read, and he worked too hard and he worked too much. ... We used to refer to my father as ‘the likable misanthrope.' He really enjoyed his alone time, but he was such wonderful company when he was with people." Mother Janis Mathless, now 88 and suffering from Alzheimer's, has "this incredible strength I did not recognize when I was younger."

What are your goals for the next five years? Warren, 63, says she hopes to spend more time traveling and with friends and family. To that end, she's turning over more responsibility to general manager Eric Dennison and catering director and office manager Michelle Johnson.

Warren says she accomplished one major goal by making Katzinger's a drug-free workplace; her next goal is to implement an open-book management system. Katzinger's has about 36 employees. By the time she retires, Warren hopes to help them better understand finance. "We live in the greatest capitalist country in the world," she says, "and our citizens don't really understand what that means, they don't understand how they fit into that paradigm of how that works."

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? Warren, who quips her success came more or less "by accident," says her best advice is to set a good example "and hope the younger women see beneath the rubble and find the method to the madness."

Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the May 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.