For some longtime observers of corporate America, the change in Pfizer's executive suite late last Friday -- with Jeffrey B. Kindler named to replace Hank McKinnell as CEO -- suggested nothing so much as that picture of Charlie Brown being duped, once again, by a football-snatching Lucy.
Since at least the early 1980s, men -- and some women -- have dismissed the notion of a glass ceiling holding women back. Brushing aside all claims of discrimination, conscious or subconscious, they predicted that women would claim their rightful share of corner offices as "the pipeline" filled with women with operational experience. Early on, their theory went, women generally held only staff positions in human resources, legal affairs, public relations and similar departments; they had failed to develop the skills needed to be CEO. Once women had held line jobs with responsibility for the bottom line, everything would be OK.
Sure enough, women have moved slowly into the vaunted "pipeline," though still not enough. According to Catalyst, the women's research and advisory group that just issued its 10th census of women in Fortune 500 companies, women held 10.6% of line-officer positions in 2005. Many now run big divisions; for years, women have earned more than a third of the MBAs granted each year.
Pfizer was one of the companies that could boast of a powerful woman. Karen Katen, named a vice chairman and marked as a contender in a three-way race for Mr. McKinnell's job in February 2005, runs the company's principal operating group, which has revenues of more than $43 billion. She's a member of Pfizer's executive committee. She sits on the boards of General Motors Corp. and Harris Corp. With an MBA from the University of Chicago, she had joined Pfizer in 1974 and made all the right stops on the path to the top. Viagra, Zithromax, Zoloft and Celebrex are among the drugs launched on her watch.
On Friday, Pfizer's board passed over Ms. Katen and gave the job to Mr. Kindler, the general counsel. His job, described in a press release, involved responsibility for "many of the company's major corporate functions, including worldwide legal affairs, corporate and regulatory compliance, government relations, corporate communications, public policy development, corporate citizenship, global security and philanthropy." In other words, a staff job.
I cannot, and would not, make the case that Ms. Katen should have bested Mr. Kindler. Maybe the reasons being bandied about are true -- that he has better leadership skills, that directors valued his outside experience (he ran units at McDonald's Corp. for a very short time), that she is too close to Mr. McKinnell. Pfizer's stock barely reacted to the choice, however, losing a little ground on Monday.
But it would be one thing if Pfizer were an isolated case. It's not. Several women have become CEOs-in-waiting, only to be passed over at the last minute. Among them are Lois Juliber, once of Colgate; Christina A. Gold, once of Avon; Dina Dublon, once of J.P. Morgan Chase; Rebecca Mark, once of Enron; Judy C. Lewent (two times), still at Merck.
Even Abigail Johnson, once president of FMR, the parent of Fidelity Investments, and widely expected to succeed her father, Edward C. Johnson, at the family-owned company, has been sidelined. Rumor has it that she will not get the CEO post.
Yes, Avon has been run by Andrea Jung since late 1999 -- but Ms. Jung herself had been passed over in 1997, the same time as Ms. Gold, when the board bet instead on Charles R. Perrin, an outsider with no experience in direct selling or cosmetics. He was replaced with more than a year left on his contract.
In another case, at Kraft, Betsy D. Holden was allowed to share the CEO job with Roger K. Deromedi for about two years, only to be demoted when Mr. Deromedi snagged the top job on his own. Ironically, in June, Irene B. Rosenfeld was hired to replace Mr. Deromedi -- she had been passed over the first time, in 2001, and had left the company.
There's a pattern here. And it explains, to some degree, why there are still only 10 women among the CEOs of the Fortune 500 (none in the top 100) or 2%. During 2005 there were 11, the highest ever. (Until 2000, the yearly high was three, according to Catalyst's reports.)
I believe it's all about risk: Male directors are simply afraid to take an unnecessary risk by selecting a woman. It's analogous to, years ago, the decision to purchase a mainframe computer: Word was that you would never have to justify your choice if you bought an IBM, even if something went wrong; you might if you purchased one from the so-called BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell). That's how IBM came to have a near-monopoly.
It's true, of course, that many men make it to the No. 2 spot and fail to go higher. But their failures are generally not as public -- they lose to another man, and they are not viewed as indicative of the deficiencies of an entire gender, as women's failures are.
In its recent report, Catalyst found that the growth rate for the advancement of women in corporate American has actually slowed in recent years. Women now hold just 9.4% of the "clout" titles -- those higher than vice president. At the current rate of "progress," Catalyst concluded that it will take another 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in the officer-level ranks -- even officers that have staff positions.
Unless top executives and corporate directors start taking a few more risks -- and, after all, calculated risks are what business is all about -- who knows how long it will be before parity could be achieved in the corner office?