Life at Work

Her No. 1 Problem

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

News flash: Women are severely underrepresented in top corporate leadership positions.

This according to a study released last week by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that studies women at work. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the numbers for women haven't gotten much better in the 10 years the statistics have been compiled.

In 2005, women held 16.4 percent of corporate officer positions (those appointed or elected by the board), up just 0.7 percentage points from 2002, according to the study, which counts the number of women in corporate officer, top earner and other executive positions in the Fortune 500. Catalyst measures the Fortune 500 companies because they have the top revenue in the country. Representation of women of color in corporate leadership positions increased only 0.3 percentage points from 2002 (1.8 percent) to 2005 (2.1 percent), the report said. (Read the report at .)

If things keep growing at the rate they have for the past decade (0.82 percentage points per year), it would take 40 years for there to be an equal number of women and men in Fortune 500 corporate officer ranks.

Tired yet, ladies?

Because there are so few women in top leadership positions, when a notable one -- Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, for instance -- vacates, the percentage of women in those ranks drops precipitously. In our own back yard, Judith McHale, chief executive of Discovery Communications, announced last week that she will step down.

Because women have held at least half of the managerial positions for decades, "that suggests something is holding women back," said Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst.

What might that be? Lack of access to informal networks inside the company, lack of role models and sex-based stereotyping, Lang said.

Not too many people argue that those problems don't exist. But what are companies doing about it?

Bonnie W. Gwin, president for the Americas at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, said her firm is focusing on the "up and comers" to fill its pipeline of female executive candidates. When a company comes looking for a new officer, Heidrick has a number of smart and driven women -- as well as men -- to fill the roles. Because women have few high-level female role models, the company has been hosting breakfasts in Brazil, Mexico and major U.S. cities for the past year in which female board members and hopefuls have shared their experiences and ideas about serving on boards.

The firm's Web site features a section about its Executive Women's Network, which links to findings that came out of the breakfasts, the new Catalyst study (of which Heidrick & Struggles was a sponsor) and a paper Gwin wrote about those breakfast discussions.

"We're a search firm that walks the talk," said Gwin, who was recruited from International Business Machines nine years ago by a woman who is now one of her mentors at Heidrick & Struggles. According to Heidrick, half of its principals are women, including the chief financial officer.

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