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No News Is Bad News: Women's Leadership Still Stalled in Corporate America

NEW YORK―No news is usually good news, but not when it comes to leadership opportunities for women in corporate America. According to the 2011 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors, Executive Officers and Top Earners and prior Catalyst Censuses, women have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago:

  • Women held 16.1% of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7% in 2010.
  • Less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women board directors.
  • About one in ten companies had no women serving on their boards.
  • Women of color still held only 3% of corporate board seats.
  • Women held 14.1% of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared to 14.4% in 2010.
  • Women held only 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5% of top earners.
  • Less than one in five companies had 25% or more women Executive Officers and more than one-quarter had zero.

Another new Catalyst release, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004–2008), indicates that sustained gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with better corporate performance―and not by just a little. Companies with three or more women board directors in four of five years, on average, outperformed companies with zero women board directors―by 84% return on sales, 60% return on invested capital, and 46% return on equity.
“Companies have much to gain by defying assumptions and taking action to advance talented women. In light of yet another Catalyst study demonstrating the powerful correlation between increased women’s leadership and better business performance, continued obstacles to progress make no sense,” said Ilene H. Lang, President & CEO, Catalyst.
Prior Catalyst research also reveals that advancing women to leadership positions is good for women and good for business:

  • Companies with more women in top leadership positions, on average, far outperform those with fewer.
  • Companies with more women board directors are likelier to have more women corporate officers five years later.
  • Companies with more women in senior leadership positions practice more corporate philanthropy and likely also have higher-quality Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

Catalyst believes that companies have a unique opportunity to enable talented women to advance and contribute. Suggested steps include:

  • Setting business targets with accountability―demographics demand, and businesses can potentially profit from, women’s leadership.
  • Asking if the skills, knowledge, and experience of employees are evaluated differently depending on a candidate's gender―Catalyst research shows that men reap the benefits of certain career advancement strategies, while women do not. Catalyst research reveals that women MBAs start at lower positions and salaries and do not catch up to their male colleagues, which disadvantages them and their employers. Catalyst research also shows that women don’t receive the sponsorship of highly influential individuals, which our research indicates is critical for advancement.
  • Checking if the “think-leader-think-male” default is still alive and well―Catalyst research has demonstrated that gender-based stereotyping is embedded (often unintentionally) in the very talent management systems designed to cultivate an organization’s best talent.
  • Determining whether persistent myths are still in play. For example, Catalyst research shows that women do not prefer a slower track and that they do use career advancement strategies similar to those employed by men, yet they don’t get the same payoff.

“It’s what companies do—beyond commitment—that counts,” added Ms. Lang. “Particularly in today’s challenging economy, staying competitive in an increasingly global marketplace requires cultivating fresh perspectives and you don’t get that by perpetuating an ‘all of the same’ leadership model. Catalyst encourages organizations to step up and ensure that talented employees—regardless of gender—have opportunities to advance and contribute. It’s the smart thing and the right thing to do.”

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, and more than 500 preeminent corporations as members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women's advancement with the Catalyst Award.