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A real ‘binder full of women’

On Tuesday, Catalyst, the New York-based research and advisory organization, released its annual census on the state of women in business leadership roles.

As has become sadly typical, the results show a “glacially slow” move in the percentage of board of director seats, executive officer roles and top-earning jobs held by women in Corporate America. According to the report, the percentage of board seats in Fortune 500 companies held by women is just 16.6 percent, barely a budge from 2011’s 16.1 percent. Just 14.3 percent of executive officer positions are held by women in Fortune 500 companies, up from 14.1 percent in 2011.

But this year, Catalyst isn’t just reporting data. It’s also hoping to do something about it. On Tuesday, it announced its first Catalyst Corporate Board Resource, a directory of women who Catalyst board members and CEOs at member companies think are qualified to sit on boards.

You might—if you were Mitt Romney—call the new directory a “binder full of women.” Let me explain.

The goal of the Corporate Board Resource, said Deborah Gillis, Catalyst’s chief operating officer, in an interview with me, is to help fight the “supply problem,” or the reason frequently given by companies for why they don’t ask more women to join their boards. “It’s not that there aren’t women available,” she said. “It’s where are [board chairs] looking? There’s a myth that you need to have been a CEO to serve on a board.” Catalyst’s research has found that there are actually some 710 female executives in the Fortune 500 who have the skills and competence to serve on Fortune 500 boards.

Of course, Catalyst’s new list is not really a binder: It will be made available as a searchable database to Catalyst’s members who contribute recommendations. And it is not populated with suggestions from a coalition of women’s groups, but by the CEOs who are peers of the nominating committees looking to make the hires. “If you have the CEO of a leading Fortune 500 company saying to another leading company ‘I know this woman,’ that peer-to-peer endorsement is going to carry significant weight,” Gillis said.

Still, while it’s likely a good thing Catalyst is producing such a service for its members, it’s a shame that in 2012 companies might still need it. Romney, you’ll recall, was ridiculed for saying in a presidential debate that, as governor, he had asked women’s groups to help him find qualified female leaders to be on his staff and they brought him “whole binders full of women.”

The comment spread virally around the Internet and offended many women. But Catalyst’s service is a reminder, for all those who scoffed at Romney’s gaffe, that we do still need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. What if we still live in a world in which boards are doing so little to identify capable female directors that they might need a directory to help find them? What if, despite the gains women have made in leadership roles in recent years, nominating committees still need reassurances from their peers in order to hire women who haven’t yet been a CEO? Might more women get into top leadership jobs if there were better resources highlighting the successes of women whose careers fly below the proverbial radar?

I would love to live in a world where we don’t need initiatives to help spotlight successful women as candidates for top leadership jobs. But the numbers continue to move slowly enough that resources like Catalyst’s, which have the added benefit of endorsements made by top CEOs, surely can’t hurt the chances of bringing more women into the boardroom.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

Another pay bump for college presidents

Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency

Great leadership books in 2012

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@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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