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Does She Need a Corner Office?

By Liz Ryan The assisted departure of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) chief Carly Fiorina earlier this year reduces the number of S&P 500 female CEOs to eight. In other words, women have about the same representation on America's business A-team that red-headed, Capricorn, Latvian lefties enjoy on the rosters of big league baseball clubs. So, you may ask, why don't more women lead major companies?

The answer has eluded the outside world for years. But inside the male-dominated halls of power, endless introspection has produced four leading theories for the absence of women from the CEO suite.

Theory One: Women Don't Want the Brass Ring

This hypothesis says that if more women really, truly desired to lead large corporations, more of them would. That line of thought reminds me of science's Anthropic Principle, which explains why our planet possesses the conditions to nurture intelligent life (assuming that's what we are): If it didn't, we wouldn't be here to ask the question.

What could make more sense than that? After all, the U.S. outlaws discrimination based on gender. So bias doesn't explain the problem. A more profound reason must exist, and lack of desire seems perfectly logical. I mean, CEO work can get as boring and demanding as high-rise construction, another field where you see few women.

And let's face it: If women wanted the top job but it eluded them for a reason other than lack of interest, then frustrated female executive vice-presidents would storm corporate boardrooms on a regular basis. You don't see that happening, do you?

Theory Two: Women Have Babies

This one is so obvious that a woman could have come up with it -- probably while taking a Lamaze class or buying baby furniture: Women not only have kids but also tend to choose inconvenient times to do so (just as a new product is launching, for example).

I know, men also act as parents, but women tend to handle their kid-related responsibilities in odd ways that hurt their corporate prospects. To witness firsthand the careless abandon with which women do this, watch a man and a woman leave for work.

The man gets in his car and drives away.

The woman spends a few minutes chatting with the nanny, checking backpacks, and finding extra socks for the baby -- activities that clearly identify her as less focused on her work.

Yes, women choose this sacrifice, but you have to wonder why more of them don't see the irony. After all, do they think the kids will care -- or even notice -- when Mom tops out as a senior VP a decade before her normal retirement age, all because she spent time on them?

Theory Three: Vanity, Thy Name Is Woman.

Just the other day, a female colleague of mine remarked, "With Fiorina gone, you won't see a lot of women on the cover of business publications."

Heck, I thought, I've hit upon an undiscovered reason why women don't hunger for the corporate penthouse: magazine photos!

Many women dislike having their pictures taken unless they can do their own makeup, triple-check the lighting, and make sure only their left profile shows. Not always possible when you're dealing with the big bad business press.

Theory Four: Women Are Quitters.

Here's the proof: In the U.S., women start some 400 new businesses a day. And why? Because a lot of them have foolishly walked away from corporate careers so they can build their own empires, often from home and on a shoestring. I can't imagine more incontrovertible evidence that women are quitters.

If they prefer to leave the corporate nest a year or two short of their next promotions, then what can the rest of us do about it? You can't blame the corporation if a woman decides to bolt just before her turn comes, now can you?

And while I'm venting (and, in case you haven't noticed, being thoroughly tongue-in-cheek): These female quitters display an alarming ingratitude. They talk their way into an entry-level corporate assignment at the age of 21 and, over the next 15 or 20 years, the corporation nurtures them. Then, boom! Just when the company needs them most, they resign, taking Carlos the freelance Web designer's card with them so they can start their Marketing Maestro business and compete with the hand that fed them.

Whether it results from lack of desire, the selfish need to procreate, or a compulsion to abandon their trusting and unwitting employer, there's something pathetic about the way women have squandered their shot at the corporate big time.

Ladies, did anyone ever tell you it's not all about you? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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