The number of female chief executives among America's largest corporations has long been stubbornly, unsurprisingly low. This year, just 5 percent of CEOs in the S&P 1500 index are women, compared with 4 percent in 2015 and 2014.
A new study released by the Pew Research Center this week examines one reason that number may remain stuck for a long time to come. Pew analyzed the four highest paid executives beneath the CEO at each company -- likely stepping-stone jobs to the CEO role -- and found that just 11.5 percent were held by women, hardly a plentiful pool from which to boost the number of women at the top.
Drew DeSilver, the study's author, said in an interview that he thought looking at the S&P 1500, rather than the more traditional S&P 500, would surface more top female executives with smaller companies in the mix, but that wasn't the case.
"It didn't work out that way," he said. "What was most surprising to me is that the percentage of non-CEO top executives was still not very high."
The data is pulled from corporate proxy statements, which have to disclose the names and pay of the CEO, chief financial officer, and next three highest paid executives.
Even more of an obstacle for women en route to the corner office: The analysis found that just 22 percent of the women who'd actually climbed to one of those top four spots held positions -- titles such as president, chief operating officer, or the head of an operating division or major subsidiary -- that are typical grooming grounds for picking the CEO's heir apparent. A much larger number were in finance or administrative roles.
Anna Beninger, senior director of research for Catalyst, the nonprofit research firm, said that fits with many senior female executives' career trajectories.
"Historically, even when when women make it to those senior-most ranks, they are in chief financial officer, head of legal, head of H.R. roles which do not traditionally allow individuals to demonstrate the skill set boards are looking for when tapping the next CEO," she said.
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the study was which groups of companies had the greatest share of women executives at the top. Yes, broad sectors like consumer discretionary firms were above average, with women making up 16.1 percent of the top jobs, as were more narrow industries like specialty retail, which has eight companies with female CEOs and 49 non-CEO top female executives.
But the category with the highest mix of female executives is more surprising: Utilities. Women hold 17.3 percent of non-CEO top jobs in utilities, more than any other sector, and the two industries with the highest percentage of women at the top were gas utilities (30 percent), water utilities (25 percent) and independent power and renewable energy producers (also 25 percent). Five of the 24 female CEOs in the S&P 500 index lead utility firms.
How has an industry with such a traditionally stodgy reputation -- and one that employs many engineers, a career path that's unfortunately not always associated with female leaders -- promoted so many women? Kay Fuhrman, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles who has worked in the sector, says the industry's deregulation in the late 1990s forced utility firms to bring in many new executives to help it commercialize, creating opportunities for many women willing to make that career jump. Years later, those hires have born fruit, as the industries tend to groom leaders from within.
"Because there was so much change over that 20 to 30 timeframe, there were new roles in new parts of the business and that was attractive," Fuhrman said. "They came in, made an impact, did great work and the benefit is they’ve been successful in rising up."
Carol Singleton Slade, who leads the global energy practice for executive search firm Egon Zehnder, notes that utilities still struggle to recruit female engineers earlier in their careers, but has two hypotheses why more women may reach the top. One is that the utility sector, with heavy regulatory and commercial aspects to its business, may weigh legal, marketing and administrative experience in choosing its CEOs more than companies in other sectors. Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, for instance, was CFO and led the company's commercial business before becoming CEO; Alliant Energy CEO Pat Kampling has an engineering degree but held several finance jobs before becoming president and chief operating officer and then CEO.
Another theory: Utilities, many of which are more regional in nature, don't require the same kind of international assignments that top jobs in other industries do.
"You're able to have a full career and not have to move overseas or relocate," Singleton Slade said. "For women to continue to progress it's not as difficult" to maneuver through personal or family obligations that women, fairly or not, continue to face.
Catalyst's Beninger, however, said it's important to keep in mind that when talking about women executives, too much shouldn't be read into industry differences because the numbers, even across the board, continue to remain meager.
"It might seem a teeny tiny less bad, but that could change by one woman stepping down, or one woman being added," she said. "The numbers are so small."