Move up the Corporate Ladder Stalls for Women

Sheryl Skaggs
Photo: University of Texas - Dallas
Sheryl Skaggs

Women may be happy about the strides they’ve made in corporate America, but they’re hardly satisfied.

“The corporate landscape is changing for the best, but the numbers remain stagnant,” says Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane, president of ION, a consortium of 14 regional organizations advancing women in business.

“It’s true women are increasingly becoming fixtures in corporate America, in higher-ranking positions,” says Sheryl Skaggs, a sociology professor at the University of Texas-Dallas.

“It’s fantastic, but to say it's enough is missing the boat,” adds Skaggs, who landed a National Science Foundation grantthis year to study so-called “glass ceiling” issues that continue to stifle gender equality in the workplace.

The progress of working women through the ranks to the tops of companies is stalled, says Deborah Soon, a senior vice president at the Catalyst Foundation, a nonprofit group that researches gender-equality issues.

As evidence, Soon cited Catalyst research findings:

  • The number of women in the boardroom has stagnated, holding around 15 to 16 percent for the past several years.
  • The number of executive officers has not improved appreciably, rising from 13 percent to just 14 percent over the past couple of years.
  • In 2010, women held 14.4 percent of executive officer positionsat Fortune 500 companies and 7.6 percent of top earner positions.

The high-profile September 6 firing of Carol Bartz as CEO of Yahoo dropped the number of female chief execs in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to 17, a little more than 3 percent. There were five in 2001, according to the executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

“The number of women and minority board members and executives has remained essentially flat over the past several years, demonstrating a clear disconnect between diversity initiatives and outcomes,” says Barbara Krumsiek, chief executive of Calvert Investments, in the preface of her firm’s influential 2010 report, Examining Cracks in the Ceiling.

The research found that while women make up 18 percent of director positions in S&P 100 firms, they represent only 8.4 percent of the highest paid positions “that provide the opportunities to develop the expertise and networks needed for future board-level appointments.”

Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report
Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report

What’s most frustrating to gender-equity advocates about the stagnant, low numbers is the growing body of research that shows diverse management teams produce better financial results than all-male teams.

Soon cited Catalyst’s groundbreaking 2004 report, “The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity,” which concluded that companies with the greatest gender diversity at the top had an average 35 percent better return on equity and 34 percent better total return to shareholders than companies with the least gender diversity at the top.

Catalyst’s 2007 report,“The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards” reached similar conclusions, Soon said.

A recent study by the McKinsey management consulting firm found that companies with three or more women in senior management positions score more highly on nine organizational excellence criteriathan companies with no women at the top.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it, according to Skaggs.

“Women bring different perspective to the playing field, which often helps bottom line,” she says. “They bring different problem solving strategies, different networks offer different opportunities to companies.”

Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane
Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane

Laurent-Ottomane contends that a female perspective brings substantial value to management. "Women tend to be more risk-averse. They have a different approach to negotiation," she says. "They tend to be peacemakers and consensus builders, in my opinion. There’s more give and take in decisionmaking, rather than ‘this is the way it's gonna be, take it or leave it.’ As a result, companies run better.”

“I’m not saying men don’t act this way, I’m saying women tend to do it more often,” she adds.

The International Monetary Fund identified such “group-think” — caused by a lack of diversity of thought — as one reason for the global financial crisis, says Melissa Anderson, editor at the Glass Hammer, a blog for women executives.

“People of similar backgrounds are likely to rubber-stamp the plans of those who look and sound like themselves,” Anderson says. “The presence of diverse individuals with fresh viewpoints encourages teams to take a closer look at management practices and performance.”

Women’s frustrations with the slow rate of progress in corporate America are tempered with some signs that equality is making strides. Laurent-Ottomane cites a Securities and Exchange Commission ruling last year that companies now must disclose in their regulatory fillings what, if any, diversity policies they have, and how they are measured and enforced.

“The balance is slowly shifting, from a societal standpoint and a corporate one,” she says. “My generation has trained its daughters to be more self-confident and to achieve what they want. For young women now, it’s an easier push up the corporate ladder than it was 30 years ago.”