Nancy Pelosi's ascent to the Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives reflects the steady progress of women in the political world. According to a new report, women also continue to climb the corporate ladder.

Women now hold 15.7 percent of corporate officer positions at large U.S. public companies, up from 8.7 percent in 1995, according to the report by Catalyst, a New York City-based research group There are six female chief executives among the Fortune 500 firms, up from two in 1995. And women now make up 5.2 percent of all top-earning executives, up from 1.2 percent seven years ago, when Catalyst first began studying female employment patterns.

"There's progress, however slow, in every dimension year after year," said Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst. "And this year, despite the poor economy, the number of women executives keeps going up, and that's heartening."

Female leaders in corporate America include Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard Co., S. Marce Fuller of Mirant Corp., Patricia F. Russo of Lucent Technologies Inc., Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox Corp., Andrea Jung of Avon Products Inc. and Marion O. Sandler of Golden West Financial Corp.

The prospects for ambitious women in the District are brighter than in other regions in the country, according to Catalyst, which reported that at the two Fortune 500 firms based in the nation's capital, the Federal National Mortgage Association (better known as Fannie Mae)and Danaher Corp., more than a third -- 38.6 percent -- of corporate officers are women.

"Corporate America has awakened to the notion that it can't afford to waste talent," said Jamie S. Gorelick, Fannie Mae's vice chairman, one of three female vice chairmen in the United States. "We get a tremendous amount out of women who are senior executives at our company. There's a critical mass of us."

Gorelick said that such "critical mass" is essential for women to have enough of a "comfort level" to move forward aggressively in their own careers. She credited Fannie Mae's chairman, Franklin D. Raines, and former chairman Jim Johnson with instituting recruitment and retention policies targeting women.

"You can't be successful in this arena without the chief executive voicing it and making it clear," Gorelick said. "Otherwise people just give lip service to the concept but you get no results."

In Virginia, about 19.9 percent of top executives are women, and in Maryland 16.7 percent, according to Catalyst. The survey included all company officials who are designated "insiders" to the Securities and Exchange Commission, including chief executive, president, chief operating officer, senior vice presidents and legal counsels.

Having more women in executive positions is better for female workers overall, said Heidi Hartmann, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Women at the top do more for other women," she said.

Hartmann said she found the Catalyst results "refreshing" because of recent press reports and books suggesting that women are dropping out of the labor force. She said these reports are untrue because "there's in fact a steady increase in women's labor force participation."

But is the glass half full or half empty for America's upwardly mobile women?

In August, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reported that fewer than one in five board members of one industry sector -- the largest communication companies -- are women and that only 16 percent of presidents and chief executives of 120 television and cable networks are women. In a statement the center referred to these levels of female participation as "tokenism."

Lorie Slass, the center's director, said she "applauded" the numbers reported by the Catalyst organization yesterday but also said she believes that the number of top jobs held by women remains relatively paltry in a country where so much of the workforce is female.