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Mass. lags behind other states in share of women leaders

Massachusetts is often held up as forward thinking, but when it comes to women moving into corporate boardrooms and executive suites, Massachusetts lags behind other states, according to a report released Thursday by the Boston Club, which works for the advancement of women leaders.

More women are reaching the top echelons of the state’s 100 largest public companies, the report found. But in a survey of 18 states, Massachusetts ranked eighth for percentage of women directors, according to a Boston Club analysis of data from the InterOrganization Network, a national women in business advocacy group.

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Massachusetts fared even worse in the female executive and CEO categories, falling to 10th in both.

“This is a pathetic showing for a state that considers itself to be progressive,” said Susan Adams, a management professor at Bentley University who conducts research for the Boston Club.

Among the states leading the way? Minnesota, Ohio, and New Jersey.

The Boston Club’s 11th annual report, which analyzed company filings for the year ending June 30 , did contain some encouraging Massachusetts news. Corporate boardrooms in Massachusetts have the most women ever, with 117, or 13.8 percent of all directors, up from just 74 a decade ago. And nearly three-quarters of the 100 companies have at least one woman director, including the nine companies that are new to the list this year.

But, the report shows, there is still a long way to go. The majority of companies — 51 — have no female executive officers. And the total number of top women executives at the 100 largest companies — 76, or 10.8 percent — is still below prerecession levels of 2006 and 2007.

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“When we talk about improving,” Adams said, “we’re still measuring with just decimal points.”

Nationwide, the share of women on boards and executive committees — 17 and 15 percent, respectively — hasn’t budged in years, according to the women’s advocacy group Catalyst Inc.

The Boston Club named 21 companies to its “zero-zero” list, made up of firms that have no women on their boards or executive committees. EnerNOC Inc., a Boston software company that helps customers manage electricity use, is among them.

More women are going into technology today, but it’s challenging to find women with enough experience to advance to the executive suite or boardroom, said Patricia O’Neill, vice president of human resources at EnerNOC.

To compensate, the company has been working to increase the number of women in upper management, forming a group dedicated to training and mentoring women, and attempting to accelerate the rate at which it moves women up the ranks.

“We’re very aggressively trying to increase our representation of women,” O’Neill said.

Diverse leadership not only boosts a company’s bottom line, studies have shown, it can also increase a company’s internal oversight and social responsibility efforts. JoAnn Cavallaro, the Boston Club president, said that too often companies make only a token effort to include women, bringing on just one woman director. But that’s not enough.

Research shows that it takes at least three women in the boardroom to shift the culture of a company, Cavallaro said. The women become more vocal, the tenor of the discussion improves, and the board becomes more effective.

“The perception of those women by male board members changes. They’re looked at now as directors, not as female directors,” she said. “It does signal that the company is beginning to really get it.”

Of the state’s 100 largest public companies, only 10 have at least three female board members. Part of the problem is the proliferation of boards made up largely of relatives or investors, as well as boards that share some of the same members — a practice Adams has dubbed “buddy boards.”

Companies are usually aware of the lack of diversity on their boards, said William Bacic, chair of the Boston Club’s corporate advisory board and managing partner of the New England practice at Deloitte & Touche. They say they intend to do something about it, but don’t always follow through.

Bacic knows there are highly qualified women across every industry because he sees their resumes come across his desk. But his recommendations often go unheeded by executives who “take the path of who they know,” he said.

Bacic said he is encouraged by the slowly increasing numbers of female board members and executives — eight of Deloitte’s 21 board members are women — but realizes the Boston Club’s mission is far from over.

“We’re not where we need to be,” he said, “so we can’t let off the pedal.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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