Corporate Ladder Climb Is Slow Going For Women

Despite some high profile executives like Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Virginia Rometty at IBM, women still hold very few CEO jobs — only about about 20 in the Fortune 500. The latest research indicates women have made practically no progress over the past several years ascending to the top slots, or getting on corporate boards.

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A new report out this morning finds women are still not making much progress moving up the corporate ladder. Only a small number of senior executives at Fortune 500 companies are women, and the nonprofit group Catalyst shows the number has not changed much in years. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: You can probably name a few high-profile women running Fortune 500 companies: Meg Whitman at HP, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. But the list of women CEO's stops at just 19. And Catalyst, which tracks this kind of data, says the number of women on corporate boards is small, too, and it hasn't budged.

DEBORAH GILLES: That's disturbing for us. Businesses, economies, societies are stronger when there is diverse representation in leadership.

KAUFMAN: That's Deborah Gilles, chief operating officer of Catalyst. She says increasing female representation on corporate boards is imperative. As of the middle of this year, it was less than 17 percent.

GILLES: The question is: Why have so few women been able to break through and be appointed to corporate boards? It's not that women aren't available or interested. It's where people are looking.

KAUFMAN: To address the problem, Gilles is enlisting the help of some of the nation's most senior executives. Catalyst is calling on them to help develop a list of board-ready women they will personally vouch for. The list can then be shared with others.

There are good reasons for all this talk about women. They make up more than half the population and more than half the workforce. What's more, there's a bottom-line business case to be made. Studies suggest that companies with more women in leadership positions show stronger financial results.

Let's examine some of the reasons. First, companies with more women may have looked at a broader, deeper and more gender-diverse talent pool. Second, Lareina Yee of the consulting giant McKinsey says women and men sometimes bring different leadership skills and styles to the table - one more individualistic and one more consensus-driven and participatory.

LAREINA YEE: Why are both things important? If you were going to adopt a new IT system for all the people in your company, you might want that to be participative, because you would like user input.

KAUFMAN: But other situations might require a different approach, and companies could benefit from having both. Yet another reason women make a difference - and this is a big one - women may be better able to understand their customers or potential customers, who increasingly are female. Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation likes to tell this story. Reality TV star Bethenny Frankel had an idea for a lower-calorie margarita and tried to get major liquor companies to embrace it.

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: So she actually created the prototype and traipsed around, and she kept on meeting the groups of white men in their 50s who just didn't get it. They didn't see how anyone would pay real money for a drink that wasn't the real thing.

KAUFMAN: So Frankel and a business partner launched the idea themselves, and it wasn't long before a major liquor company bought Skinny Girl Cocktails, which now has a long list of products, including low-calorie wine.

It might seem like a somewhat frivolous example, until you learn that Skinny Girl sold for more than $100 million. And Hewlett says you have to wonder how much money a liquor company might have saved if it had bought the idea the first time around.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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