You've Come A Short Way, Baby

Women are making progress in Corporate America--but it's slow going indeed

At first glance, there's welcome news here. Women now account for 11.2% of officers at large corporations, up from 10.6% last year and 8.7% in 1995. More than half of the 500 companies assessed by Catalyst, the not-for-profit research organization, have more than one female officer, and a few big employers are approaching gender parity.

So Corporate America is doing better by women. Right?

On the other hand, consider the raw number--11.2%. That's just one officer in nine--a generation or longer after women began entering the labor force en masse. In a scant 32 companies of those studied do women make up more than a quarter of top management. And at 125 employers--that's actually more than last year--women are shut out. General Electric: No women officers. Exxon: Zero. Philip Morris, Intel, Compaq: Not a one.

"DISAPPOINTING." The few women who do attain the executive suite, moreover, still occupy mostly staff positions--corporate marketing, human resources, and the like. They hold just 6.2% of the line posts that, with profit-and-loss responsibility, are viewed as more critical within organizations. And at the top, women still earn substantially less than their male counterparts.

Promising, then, or bleak? Catalyst, which has studied women in business since 1962, thinks both. The results "are bound to be disappointing," says Sheila Wellington, Catalyst's president. At the same time, she notes, women have become more ingrained strategically in organizations, such that their overall gains no longer are so vulnerable to economic gyrations or bouts of restructuring.

Catalyst invented its census three years ago, basing the count on 10-K reports, proxy statements, and follow-up surveys. It's an imperfect analysis, since the definition of "officer," as recorded in public filings, isn't always consistent. General Electric Co., for example, which lists just 23 senior officers in its 10-K, says it actually has a total of 140, of which 10 are women.

MIXED SIGNALS. Catalyst's census does, however, provide a measure over time of women's advancement--or lack thereof. And clearly, women at some companies are shining. At Nordstrom, Fannie Mae, and PacifiCare Health Systems, they hold around 40% of the officers' slots. Fannie Mae Vice-Chairman Jamie S. Gorelick and Andrea Jung, president of Avon Products, are both in positions to take over their companies' top job within a few years, as are Lucent Technologies' Carleton S. Fiorina and Patricia F. Russo.

Beyond those few, however, clear-cut success stories are hard to come by. Motorola Inc., for one, has won plaudits for requiring its senior managers to identify and groom women and minority successors; the number of female vice-presidents has soared to 41 from 2 in the last decade. Yet just 3 of its 149 officers are female. Texas Instruments Inc. and Amoco Corp., both well-known for diversity efforts, have no women officers. While Amoco managers continue to be judged in part on the diversity of their teams, three senior women who left in the past year all have been replaced by men.

Even where women have won officer status, they face a startlingly wide pay gap. Women among the five highest-paid officers of their companies, Catalyst found, took home just 68% of the earnings of their male counterparts. Even adjusted for age differences, for the preponderance of women in lower-paid staff roles, and for the paucity of women CEOs, a gap persisted. Female chief financial officers, for example, earned 77% of what male CFOs made.

The upshot: "In the upper echelons, it's still a white male preserve," says Heidi Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Why are we surprised?" Indeed, women throughout the economy earn 26% less than men, according to Labor Dept. data. In her own studies in 1995 via Census Bureau data, Hartmann found, foreshadowing Catalyst's results, that men far outnumbered women among top-paid managers.

What follow are reports from the front, where the tidings are as mixed as the data would suggest. H.F. Ahmanson & Co., the California thrift that topped Catalyst's list, disappeared this year in a merger with Washington Mutual Inc.; as of Oct. 1, all five of its women officers were out of jobs (below). Meanwhile, at Lucent Technologies Inc., the three-year-old spin-off from AT&T, women are thriving at the highest levels. Promising or bleak? A bit of both.

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