Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Women in Leadership: Persistent Problems or Progress?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Women in Leadership: Persistent Problems or Progress?

Article excerpt


In the world of work, there is a scarcity of women in top leadership. Despite the documented progress of women in the workplace demonstrating that women now hold more that 40% of all managerial positions in the United States, there remains a paucity of women in executive roles and on corporate boards of directors (Eagly and Carli 2007; Wolfman 2007). A growing body of research suggests that women add value to companies when holding executive and board positions (Hillman, Harris, Cannella, and Bellinger 1998; Adler 2001; Carter, Simkins, and Simpson 2003; Richard 2000). However, in 2008 women held only 15.7 percent of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. The number of companies with no women corporate officers increased from 74 in 2007 to 75 in 2008. The number of companies with three or more women corporate officers also increased from 203 in 2007 to 206 in 2008.

Similarly, in 2008, women held 15.2 percent of directorships at Fortune 500 companies; this number was 14.8 percent in 2007. The number of companies with no women board directors increased from 59 in 2007 to 66 in 2008 representing an average increase of only 0.5 percent annually over the last 10 years (Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors website). It seems that little progress is being made in the United States toward parity with men in top leadership positions

These numbers are even bleaker in other countries. The top 300 European companies now have 9.7 percent of women on their boards, up from 8.5 percent in 2006 and 8 percent in 2004. Norway's impressive 44.2 percent women on boards is a result of quota legislation. Without Norway, the European growth average growth rate of around 0.5 percentage points over each two year period from 2004 onwards parallels that of the United States (European Professional Women's Network website).

This problem of women's scarcity in top leadership positions first gained attention in 1977 when the nonprofit organization Catalyst, instituting a corporate board service to help introduce professional and business women to corporations, reported their findings that there were only 147 women directors represented on the 1,300 largest U.S. public companies' boards of directors (Schwartz 1980; Wolfman 2007). At the time, there was little data on the role of women in the workplace and this number caught the attention of many interested people.

The purpose of this paper is to assess the progress women have made toward advancement into top leadership positions and to examine the issues impacting this advancement by reviewing the current literature. Toward this end, a 1980 Harvard Business Review article by Felice Schwartz, founder of Catalyst, provides some important baseline observations as a starting place from which to measure advancement. In this article, Schwartz (1980) begins by reporting the tentatively optimistic increase in the number of women directors from 147 in 1976 to 300 in 1979. However, while this represented an impressive overall increase, the ratio of women to men on boards remained very small with 300 women as directors on 365 of the Fortune 1,300 boards to about 16,000 men on these boards (Schwartz 1980).

In an effort to understand the qualifications chairmen were seeking in potential board members, Schwartz (1980) reports that chief executive officers (CEO's) were the most desirable board members. This was due to the perception that, with experienced CEO's on a board, their combined experiences would cover most problems challenges and opportunities that might possibly arise. Noting that there were only two women CEO's of major corporations in the United States at that time and that only about twenty four women had CEO equivalent level of experience, Schwartz (1980) points out that

"thus it will very likely take two decades for the number of women in upper management to assume significant proportions and another five to ten years after that for these women to acquire experience and move up to the officer level, where they can obtain the broad perspective that is so desirable for the corporate board's planning function. …

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