Percentage of Women on Corporate Boards Remains Stagnant

Women must stay focused on profit and loss positions.


By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Women's stagnation in the corporate penthouse continues, according to Catalyst, a New York-based organization that aggregates data about and presses for women's advancement in the corporate hierarchy. Catalyst's just-released census shows that the percent of female board members of Fortune 500 company board positions has stagnated during the past five years:

Women held 15.2 percent of board seats, a number that reflects little growth over the past five years, and women of color held 3.1 percent of all board director positions, compared to 3.2 percent last year, the 2009 Catalyst Census found. The nonprofit's Census also showed:

* Almost 90 percent of companies had at least one female director, but less than 20 percent had three or more, the same as in 2008.

* Women's share of board chair positions remained flat at 2 percent.

I had a lengthy breakfast yesterday (it lasted 3.5 hours) with a very senior female of color executive at a major computer and federal contract firm. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in advanced economics and has fought over her 20-year career to stay in positions where she was responsible for the bottom line: so-called profit-and-loss positions.

She has two children and said she fought back against gender- and race-based preconceptions to stay in profit and loss—or P&L—positions, but saw many of her female colleagues herded into non-P&L positions in human resources, public relations, etc. That, she and many experts believe, is the mistake most female corporate executives make. She says it's critical to maintain P&L responsibilities to make it to the top. And even women who have succeeded in raising corporate income don't always get promoted as quickly as their male colleagues.

My unnamed source says she has seen men promoted based on their networking and "potential," whereas female would-be captains of industry are not usually promoted until they have "proven" their worth to the company.

She's not the first I've heard mention P&L responsibilities as critical to women's advancement in the workplace. But the new Catalyst data prove women are advancing at a much slower rate than anyone foresaw. Whether women avoid P&L jobs (which I doubt) or corporate bosses are loath to give women those responsibilities and more likely to steer them toward other career paths (which I believe is more likely the case) has yet to be proven.