Catalyst has been tracking women’s representation at the highest levels of corporate America since the 1990’s and according to Rachel Soares, the organization’s Director of Research, 20 years of data indicates that historically, things are moving in the right direction, but we are currently at a standstill.
The 2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and the 2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners released December 10, indicate a troubling trend: no movement. Catalyst reports there has been little to no increase for women on boards in corporate America. In 2012, women held only 16.6 percent of board seats. In 2013, it was 16.9. In both 2012 and 2013, less than one-fifth of companies had 25 percent or more women directors, while one-tenth had no women serving on their boards. Even more dispiriting, less than one-quarter of companies had three or more women directors serving together in both 2012 and 2013.
There was also no change for women in top leadership. According to Catalyst’s findings, the needle barely budged for women aspiring to top business leadership in corporate America. Last year, women held 14.3 percent of executive officer positions. In 2013, women held 14.6 percent.
There was also no gain year over year, as women held only 8.1 percent of Executive Officer top earner slots. In both 2012 and 2013, one-fifth of companies had 25 percent or more women Executive Officers, yet more than one-quarter had no women Executive Officers.
Catalyst’s President & CEO, Ilene H. Lang, expressed her disappointment with the findings.
“It’s hard to believe that at the end of 2013 we still see more than a few all-male corporate boards and leadership teams,” she said. “Diverse business leadership and governance are correlated with stronger business performance, employee engagement, and innovation. Shareholders beware: a company with no women at the top is missing one of the biggest opportunities in the marketplace today.”
Progress Takes Time
Catalyst has been instrumental in shedding light on the lack of female representation at the highest levels of companies. Catalyst’s research shows that as more women graduated from business schools and entered corporate America in record numbers (now comprising almost half the workforce), their lack of representation at the top only magnified. It seemed that corporate America heeded the call, with every large company and firm worth its salt addressing the issue by creating employee resource groups, mentoring programs, diversity initiatives, and networking groups with the goal of fostering female success. Yet here we are, stuck at 16 percent for women on boards and 14 percent for women in top leadership. It begs the question: what went wrong?
The short answer is that progress takes time. Soares says that many companies ramped up their efforts to move toward diversity and inclusion and they made major strides while influencing other companies in the process. Despite being at a standstill, Soares says that those efforts are more important than ever.
“We don’t want to lose ground. Being at a standstill isn’t great, but losing ground would be the worst thing,” the research director said. “So while the numbers feel discouraging, the initiatives that companies have in place and the effort they continue to make year after year help us keep our footing. One of the most impactful things we do is providing this information this year. It’s a snapshot of where things are and where things are falling short. We want companies to join the groundswell that will eventually lead to big change.” Soares also notes that there are many companies—those with 25% or more women board directors or women executive officers—that are proving this can be done, and that “it’s not hard—it’s just business as usual.”
When discussing the issue of women on boards and women executive officers and top earners, it’s important to understand who is being discussed, namely white women. Soares says that the experience of women of color in corporate America is very different than that of white women – and the numbers reflect that.
In 2012, women of color held 3.3 percent of all board seats; white women held 13.4 percent. In 2013, the number of women of color holding board seats actually went down to 3.2 percent. In both 2012 and 2013, more than two-thirds of companies had no women of color directors.
“It is inarguably a bleak picture for women of color. When there is no progress for white women, there is no progress for women of color as well. It’s not just about putting women in seats; it’s about which women. The benefits of real-deal diversity are clear. Diverse teams are more successful and help companies properly compete in a global marketplace. Clearly, we still have a far way to go in recognizing that power,” Soares said.