YOU HAVE TO hand it to Catalyst, the women’s research and advocacy outfit. It always manages to see a few rays of light in a field of gloom. Next week, Catalyst will host a big, fancy dinner in New York to honor companies with successful initiatives to advance women in corporate America. In the 21st century, you might think, it shouldn’t be hard to find lots of companies to applaud for expanding opportunities for women.
Think again. Catalyst’s recently released census of women in Fortune 500 companies is bleak. Percentage of corporate officer jobs held by women? Down. Number of companies with three or more women in top positions? Down. Percentage of board seats held by women? Down. Number of companies with one or two female directors? Down. Wait – here’s an increase: It’s the number of companies completely lacking a woman on their board: 58, up from 53 in 2005. To be fair, some of those declines were not all that significant, and there was a slight increase in the absolute number of female corporate officers. But it’s hard to argue that the “glass ceiling” isn’t made of steel when we consider that women have earned more than a third of MBAs granted each year since the early 1980s.
Maybe it’s time to take a different tack. Instead of pats on the back, maybe it’s time for raps on the knuckles. Catalyst, which advises corporations on women’s issues and depends on them for income, won’t do that. This year, it did not even publish a list of the stragglers. But, by updating last year’s list with information that companies provide on the Internet, we can – right here – name a few of the 64 Fortune 500 companies that still have no women on their top management teams, even though more than half the U.S. managerial and professional workforce is female.
These female-free management zones include such blue-chip names as Owens-Illinois, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Solectron and Williams Cos. Peculiarly, it’s not just companies we’d expect to be male bastions, such as auto-parts manufacturers and oil companies, that are remiss. There’s Saks Inc., for example. Sure, they sell women’s boardroom attire, but the suits at the top of Saks are all men.
There’s also Borders Group. More books are purchased by women than men, but you’d never know that by looking at Borders’ top executives.
And what about Newell Rubbermaid? The next time you need a container for leftovers, ladies, consider buying from its rival Tupperware instead. Unlike Rubbermaid, it has four women on the management team. Two other miscreants also profit by selling to women but failing to promote them: Toll Bros., the luxury homebuilder, and Whirlpool, whose washers, dryers and ranges are, I’d guess, used more by women than men. One could go on.
And the dishonor roll is just as glaring on the boardroom side. Apple, NewsCorp, Devon Energy, Bear Stearns and Hovnanian Enterprises are among the companies unable to get, or keep, women on their boards – not even one.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about women leaving corporate America, unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to advance. Maybe. But college-educated women still earn just 75 cents for every dollar their male peers take home, and corporate women are twice as likely as men to have staff jobs rather than the operating jobs that give them the experience to rise. Yet women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, and those businesses are growing at twice the rate of all firms. Given those statistics, it seems far more likely that women are leaving corporations because they are not allowed into corridors of real power even after they’ve made the sacrifices.
Executive suites and boardrooms remain a men’s club because many men are uncomfortable with giving women power or because they fear taking the risk of promoting a woman. And when women fail – or simply don’t shine – it continues to reflect not only on themselves but also on the entire gender.
Striving for a level playing field for women in business is not only about justice; it’s about business. As Whirlpool aptly put it in the website description of its Women’s Network, “Whirlpool’s broadest customer base is women. The Women’s Network serves as a vehicle for Whirlpool women to deepen consumer insights.”
If the executives responsible for that sentiment truly believed it, why wouldn’t they trust women to lead?