Female Executives Still Don’t Get The Leadership Positions

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Women still make up a very small share of top executives at America’s largest companies. But even those who make it are often still stuck in lower positions.

Among members of executive committees, or the executives who report to the CEO, at Fortune 100 companies, just 16 percent are women, according to a report from 20-First. Worse, two-thirds of them are in staff or support positions, such as human resources, communications, or legal roles. Just a third are in line or operational roles. There hasn’t been any significant progress in increasing these numbers for the past three years. As the report notes, “Companies that only manage to promote women into leadership through staff roles demonstrate that they have not yet worked out how to gender balance their leadership development systems and their talent pipelines.”

The good news is that the United States is doing better in some regards than Europe or Asia. More than half of the top American companies have at least two women on their executive committees, while just a quarter of European and 16 percent of Asian companies do. At two American companies — Target and TIAA-CREF — the executive committees are at least 40 percent female.

But there’s clearly lots of room to do better. Women have made up less than 15 percent of executives at Fortune 500 companies for four straight years. And on these companies’ boards, they have gone even longer without progress, holding less than 17 percent of the seats for eight straight years. Besides the small numbers, Americans give female executives low marks. Just two women made it onto Glassdoor’s list of the 50 highest rated CEOs of 2014 and none broke into the top 30. Both women and men say they prefer men as senior Fortune 500 executives.

Europe has tended to do better when it comes to women’s representation on boards, particularly in countries that have instituted goals or quotas for increasing women’s representation. The United Kingdom set a target of having 25 percent female board members and the percentages hit a record high. In Norway, which instituted a 40 percent quota, women hold 35 percent of non-executive board positions. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have also passed quotas, and one could soon come to the whole European Union. But in the United States, there is only a requirement that companies disclose information about how they consider diversity when selecting their boards that most don’t even comply with.

The slow progress is not just harmful for women’s advancement but also for the companies themselves. A wide body of research has found that increased gender diversity in leadership leads to better company performance.