The Glass Ceiling's Iron Girders

Despite the good work celebrated at advocacy group Catalyst's annual award dinner, the fact remains: Few females hold top-tier jobs

By Diane Brady

Every year, some of Corporate America's heaviest hitters gather in a hotel ballroom to fete one another on their efforts to promote women. The occasion: the annual awards dinner for Catalyst, the country's leading research and advisory group specializing in helping companies advance women. The 30th edition, held this year at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Mar. 24, attracted heads of General Electric (GE ), Texas Instruments (TXN ), Xerox (XRX ), Tyco (TYC ), Raytheon (RTN ), McDonald's (MCD ), General Motors (GM ), Allstate (ALL ), Alcoa (AA ), and KPMG.

The men and women sitting on-stage that night control some of the world's most powerful companies. Via that dinner alone, they raised almost $2.9 million for the New York City-based organization. Each corporate participant attested to his or her company's deep commitment to promoting women into the top ranks.


  Yet three decades of high-profile awards and grand dinners have failed to yield big results. Of America's top 500 companies, only nine have female CEOs. Women make up about 5% of the top earners and barely 16% of the corporate officers. Moreover, even in a climate of improved corporate governance and stiffer board rules, only 13.6% of board members are female. Do these stats really warrant breaking out the bubbly?

Catalyst President Ilene Lang certainly feels that Corporate America is gathering a critical mass of female talent that could engender more leaders in coming years. "The experience is there -- the ambition is there," says Lang, noting that a decade ago only one female CEO graced the top 500 companies. "It's up to companies to take the next step to take us there."

Those next steps are where business leaders often fall short (see BW Online, 3/25/05, "You've Come the Wrong Way, Baby"). They focus on family-friendly peripheral amenities -- lactation rooms, generous leave policies, and flex-time -- without determining whether they've truly placed talented females on a leadership track. Says Lang: "Ten years ago, a company with a great day-care center could win the Catalyst award. That's not true anymore."


  Instead, this year's award winners -- Georgia-Pacific Corp. (GP ) and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, a 1,550-attorney law firm -- demonstrated the diligence required to get women ahead. Neither of the leaders spoke much about the perks they give to women. Tom Cole, chairman of the executive committee at Sidley, takes pains to note that flex-time differs from part-time in his firm. And Georgia-Pacific Chairman and CEO Pete Correll goes so far as to dub such things "frills that don't matter much."

Correll emphasizes the need to get a nonwhite or female candidate for every major job in the company. "They don't have to get the job. But there has to be a candidate," he says. Moreover, GP measures each manager's progress in increasing diversity every year, and Correll personally reviews the results. Creating rewards based on attaining diversity tends to drive results, he has found.

More important, Correll says, employers need to present talented women with opportunities to advance themselves. Certain unfortunate assumptions about women still exist: that they would refuse to live in one of the small rural communities where GP has operations, or that working mothers might resist taking on certain tasks. Correll's response: "How do we know? Let's go ask her."


  This is no closet feminist at the helm. Correll began pushing for women and minorities back in 1993, when it became clear that a lot of talented white males were heading into investment banking. "We wanted to upgrade our management team," he says. "We could attract a higher-caliber female than male, so it made sense to look for women."

Then, as more women rose through the ranks, others began to believe that they could take a similar route to the top. GP now has 29% female top executives, up from 9% in 2001.

Correll knows that obstacles remain, and he senses that some talented women still have doubts about upward mobility at GP. But he feels better about his company's talent pool than he did 10 years ago. Quoting Martin Luther King, Correll says: "Lord, we ain't what we ought to be; we ain't what we want to be; we ain't what we are going to be; but thank God, we ain't what we was."

Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York

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