RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When it comes to getting on corporate boards or into senior leadership roles within big companies, women are still not making headway. New research out this morning examined Fortune 500 companies and found that women still hold less than 20 percent of the seats on boards of directors, and women have an even smaller percentage of senior executive positions. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Despite all the talk about the value of increasing gender diversity at the top, not much has changed, according to a group called Catalyst, which does research and promotes business opportunities for women. The group says this is the eighth consecutive year the percentage of women on corporate boards didn't budge. Deborah Gillis, the COO of Catalyst, says the findings, which are based on mid-2013 data, are very disappointing.
DEBORAH GILLIS: And, frankly, it's embarrassing because there's no excuse in 2013 for women to remain shut out of the most senior decision-making roles in these companies.
KAUFMAN: Beyond issues of equity or fairness, there's a strong business case for including more women. Researchers at Credit Suisse, for example, looked at the performance of more than 2,000 global companies over several years, ending in 2012. Companies with women on their boards had higher average returns on equity and higher growth. These findings don't prove women made the difference, but Credit Suisse's CEO concluded no one can say the results aren't striking. Katherine Phillips, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia University's Business School, believes that women bring a perspective the men may not have. And, she says, that diversity of perspective and opinion compels everyone in the room to think harder and more critically.
KATHERINE PHILLIPS: You have something in your face that's telling you that your way of thinking about the world is not the only way. And so when I think about this problem, when I think about solutions to this problem, I'm actually going to be more creative and more open to multiple perspectives.
KAUFMAN: An expert in collective intelligence, Thomas Malone of MIT suggests some slightly different explanations for why having women in the group can lead to smarter decisions.
THOMAS MALONE: One possibility is that women are just more collaborative. Our results are, group intelligence was correlated with the degree to which people participated about equally, rather than having a few people trying to dominate.
KAUFMAN: Historically, many companies have maintained they hire the best person for the job. But Tom Falk, the CEO of Kimberly Clark, says if you're only choosing talent from half the population, it's hard to imagine you have the best team. Falk acknowledges that to get more women, many managers will have to think differently.
TOM FALK: We often say we want ability, but we promote experience, or we select for experience. We want someone who's actually done it.
KAUFMAN: And since there are so few women in those top categories, Falk says it can be tough.
FALK: You have to be willing to reach for that person that's got great ability, but maybe doesn't have every experience that you might want.
KAUFMAN: Kimberly Clark makes things like diapers and feminine products, so perhaps it's not surprising the company would want and indeed has a sizeable number of women in senior positions. But the fact is, many companies who sell lots of goods and services to women have just a single female on their corporate boards. Among them: Apple, Comcast, Safeway and Toys R Us. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.