For women of the corporation, the news from around Chicago has seemed pretty good of late. After taking a few years off, Brenda Barnes easily moved back into the executive suite in 2005, becoming chairman and chief executive at Sara Lee Corp. in Downers Grove; last June, Irene Rosenfeld left Frito-Lay to take the CEO title at Kraft Foods Inc. in Northfield; and, two months earlier, Patricia A. Woertz leapt from Chevron Corp. into the top job at Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Decatur, Ill.
Considering that there are just about a dozen women at the top of the entire Fortune 500, Chicago seemed like a place where women had a good chance of climbing high on the corporate ladder.
Unfortunately, Chicago is not some corporate Lake Wobegone, where all the companies are above average. Despite those high-profile advances, women in corporate Chicago are losing ground, according to the most recent report of Chicago Network, an analysis of proxies and other financial statements filed last year by Chicago's 50 largest public companies. It found that women occupy a smaller percentage of top management positions and boardroom seats for the first time since its census began in 1998. In both cases, women hold just 14 percent of the jobs.
That jibes completely with national trends reported recently by Catalyst, a women's research and advisory group. Catalyst's 2006 census of women in Fortune 500 companies presents a bleak picture: The percentage of corporate officer jobs held by women, the number of companies with three or more women in top positions, the percentage of board seats held by women, and the number of companies with one or two female directors all declined. Yes, there was an increase -- it was the number of companies completely lacking a woman on their board, which now stands at 58, up from 53 in 2005. (In fairness, some of the declines were not all that significant.)
Corporate Chicago did not fall back on that last variable: On the latest Chicago list, only two companies had no female board members, down from six a year earlier. The stragglers are Nalco Co. and Brunswick Corp., and Brunswick has added a female director since the filing considered by the Chicago Network. Only Nalco now lacks a woman on its board.
Perhaps the needling of previous years worked. Perhaps those on the dishonor roll need a greater incentive to admit women to their ranks. Perhaps they need to be cited even more publicly, right here, right now. After all, public shaming has been used to effect behavior in this country since colonial times.
In fact, just as with Brunswick's board, there has been change in the executive ranks at five companies since the Chicago report was published late last year. Tenneco, Wrigley, Nalco, Smurfit-Stone Container and NiSource, all cited as having no female executive officers in their proxy statements for 2005, have all recently elevated women to their executive teams, as posted on their Web sites.
So, in the hope of encouraging change, here are the seven companies on the Chicago 50 that currently have no female executive officers: Illinois Tool Works, CNA Financial, Office Max, Anixter International, Old Republic International, Pactiv and Unitrin.
Oh, here come the excuses, starting with the old saw that it's hard to find qualified women. Please.
Fifty percent of the professional and managerial workforce is female. Women have been earning more than one-third of all the MBA degrees granted in the U.S. since the 1980s.
Women are starting their own businesses at twice the rate of men, and those businesses are growing at twice the rate of all firms.
A survey by Catalyst shows that women are just as ambitious about achieving top corporate jobs as men are. And in another survey, male chief executives admitted that a key reason women have not entered the C-suites and boardrooms of corporate America at a faster rate is that they -- the current CEOs -- have failed to take personal responsibility for seeing that women rise.
In the 21st Century, this all seems so tedious. There's even a new term for it, albeit one used more explicitly about ethnic and racial issues -- it's called diversity fatigue.
But there's an explanation for that very human response, stated beautifully by suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1902, six months before she died, she said: "Our movement is belated and like all things too long postponed now gets on everyone's nerves." Those who control the laggard corporations are in the best position to make this tedium disappear.