Are Women Better Off Than Four Years Ago?

Recently MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow faced off with Republican consultant Alex Castellanos on Meet the Press about evidence of an income gap between professional men and women. Since this argument was about a disagreement on the facts, we decided to do our own research and present some evidence on the topic of income and professional achievement in the Fortune 500.

Unfortunately, research demonstrates that there is still a large disparity in the number of high-paying positions held by women and men; and women haven’t made tremendous progress in the last six years in closing that gap.

According to the 2011 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors, Executive Officers and Top Earners and prior Catalyst Censuses, women have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago:

  • Women held 16 percent of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7 percent in 2010.
  • Less than one-fifth of companies had 25 percent or more women board directors.
  • About one in ten companies had no women serving on their boards.
  • Women held 14.1 percent of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared to 14.4 percent in 2010.
  • Women held only 7.5 percent of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5 percent of top earners.
  • Less than one in five companies had 25 percent or more women Executive Officers and more than one-quarter had zero.

This is not good news for companies that are hoping to remain competitive. Catalyst research also showed that gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with better corporate performance – by a huge margin.  Companies with three or more women board directors in four of five years, on average, outperformed companies with zero women board directors by 84 percent return on sales, 60 percent return on invested capital, and 46 percent return on equity. Whoa.

But how can companies with a dearth of female talent turn things around?  Here are four suggestions:

Bolster Your Women’s Initiatives

Women’s leadership and affinity groups are great, but it’s not enough to simply have them.  You have to fund them properly, publicize them properly, and also make them an ingrained aspect of your corporate culture so female leaders thinking about joining your team hear about them during the interview process.

Focus on Mentoring

Since male executives are more comfortable mentoring younger male professionals, there is a lack of guidance available for rising female professionals. Make an effort to tap senior and mid-level female managers for formal mentoring initiatives so that close one-on-one relationships will bind women together in your organization.

Scrutinize Promotion Criteria

Catalyst recommends determining if the skills, knowledge, and experience of employees are evaluated differently depending on gender, and asking the tough questions, such as:  Is it harder for women in your organization to receive sponsorship from highly influential individuals?  Unfortunately, gender-based stereotyping is still alive and well in many companies.  By taking a hard look at your policies and procedures, you may be able to remedy unintentional slights.  If you find it difficult to be objective, you may find a third-party consultant helpful.

Banish the Mommy Track

To that end, you should not presuppose that women of childbearing age or women with families want to step off the fast track in favor of greater work/life balance.  Provide all female managers with the same opportunities to advance and assume employees will take advantage of them unless you are explicitly told otherwise.

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  • jlseibly

    Great article! I recently spoke with a woman about her boss receiving an award she should have been given. When they talked about it, he said, “Someday you’ll learn that you have to standup and let people know what you’ve done!”  This is one of the primary reasons I’ve written the book, “It’s Time To Brag!” ( It has taught 1,000’s how to “brag” in a bizsavvy manner. It’s taught them how to sell ourselves and not rely upon others to intuitively know about their accomplishments (a myth that clients, employees and others will “know” what we’ve done for them).  Join me on

    • alevit

       Thanks for the recommendation, JL!  Sounds like the perfect complement to the post.

  • Kasollmann

    Hi Alexandra…Enjoyed your article.  There are many theories on why women have not advanced more dramatically in the last four or 40 years.  I think that you’ll be intrigued by this blog post I wrote on my multi-channel blog site,  I’ll be interested in your opinion about whether this little boy’s view of women is an isolated incident or a widespread view.

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