USA Today l Number of female Fortune 500 CEOs at record high


A new record has been set for female leadership: More women are slated to take the reins of Fortune 500 companies than ever before.

On Tuesday, IBM tapped Virginia “Ginni” Rometty to succeed Sam Palmisano, making her the first female CEO in the company’s 100-year history. Today pharmaceutical firm Mylan said Heather Bresch will succeed Robert Coury as CEO. Both appointments become effective Jan. 1.

If no female steps down before the start of the new year, there will be 18 women running Fortune 500 companies in 2012. Previously, there haven’t been more than 16 females running Fortune 500 firms at the same time.

Yet, while upcoming ascensions are notable, the gender gap between men and women in the workplace remains vast, with females struggling to get the mentors they need and the pay to equal their male counterparts.

“The advancement of key women in business is stalled,” says Cynthia Good, CEO of women’s business newsletter Little PINK Book.

Currently, female leaders make up about 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs — that’s barely up from the 2% just seven years ago, says Good.

In 2009, women held 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to women’s issues research group Catalyst. In both 2009 and 2010, 12% of Fortune 500 companies had no women serving on their boards.

“We’ve really flat-lined,” says Debbie Soon, Catalyst senior vice president of marketing and strategy. “For the last five years there’s been hardly any progress.”

Yet, there is hope that as more women take the top ranks, female workers will be provided with more role models they can emulate.

“It sends the message of ‘yes, women can do this,'” Good says. “Women need to see other women in key roles.”

In the last few months alone, three other new female CEOs have emerged: Margaret Whitman became Hewlett-Packard CEO in September, Denise Morrison took the CEO post at Campbell Soup Company in August and Gracia Martore was named CEO of Gannett earlier this month (Gannett owns USA TODAY.)

And there have been some reduced ranks as well. For instance, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was fired in September.

But Good says that the numbers just aren’t strong enough.

“Facts are facts,” she says. “And 3% is just 3%.”

So what’s holding women back? A variety of issues, say experts.

Men, who tend to tout their accomplishments more than women, are promoted and hired based on potential, Good says. Women, who can be more reticent, “are promoted and hired based on if they can do the job.”

Anecdotally speaking, men are also more apt to quickly say “yes” to a career-enhancing assignment that could affect their personal life, while women more tend to think about the opportunity and consider how it could affect home situations such as eldercare or childcare, says Catalyst’s Soon.

In turn, the next time a manager has a job to offer, he or she may remember that female’s hesitation and consider going with another candidate, she says.

Even newly tapped IBM CEO Rometty says that she had to change her thinking process — and work style — in order to move up the corporate ranks.

Speaking at a recent Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, she recounted a story from “early, early” in her career: She was offered a “big job” that she didn’t think she was prepared to take. She told the person who made the offer that she didn’t have experience, and that she had to think about the offer before giving an answer.

When she told her husband about that discussion, Rometty said his response was: “Do you think a man would have ever answered the question that way?”

That was a wake-up call that she needed to be more self-assured, as well as have the courage to take professional leaps. “You have to be very confident, even though you are so self-critical inside,” she said.

Good says that it’s not only important for women to make changes in their behavior — but that companies need to make some shifts as well.

“We’ve got to get past the point of just encouragement, suggestions and lip service about promoting women,” she says. “We’ve got to get to the point where we set up metrics and very specific achievable goals where it leads to change.”

Change won’t come “from one new women CEO here and one there,” Good says. It’ll only come when businesses measure and benchmark their progress.

Both Good and Catalyst’s Soon point out some extra incentive for companies to push forward on diversity efforts: firms with more female managers tend to be more profitable.

There was a 16.7% return on equity for companies that have at least three women board members according to a 2007 Catalyst report. The average for all companies analyzed was 11.5%.

“When you have diversity of thought and various perspectives, you benefit from being able to talk about things that you wouldn’t have even considering if you have a very homogeneous management team,” says Good.

By Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY

USA Today l Number of female Fortune 500 CEOs at record high

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