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Little headway made with number of women on company boards

Catalyst chief executive Deborah Gillis said that less progress has been made in the advancement of women into officer and director positions.
Catalyst chief executive Deborah Gillis said that less progress has been made in the advancement of women into officer and director positions.(Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — The lip service paid to diversity by many large US companies has done little for actual progress toward putting women on their boards, a new study shows.

Women were named to about 27 percent of open board seats at companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in 2015, according to a report by Catalyst, an organization that advocates for workplace inclusion for women. That leaves women with 19.9 percent of board seats at S&P 500 companies, inching up from 19.2 percent in 2014.

“Companies have been espousing equality for a long time,” but women didn’t even increase their representation on boards by 1 percentage point, said Jan Combopiano, Catalyst’s senior vice president for research. “That feels like a big disconnect to us.”

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Groups including the 30 Percent Club and the 30 Percent Coalition — which count many big US companies among their members — are fighting to increase the representation of women on corporate boards. They’ve been spurred by research showing that diversity improves the bottom line. In February, a report from EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that companies with at least 30 percent women in leadership may boost profit margins by 15 percent.

About 10 percent of roughly 5,000 S&P 500 board seats typically turn over each year, Combopiano said. With a few more new seats going to women than they currently hold, “at least the numbers are moving in the right direction,” she said. Only about 14 percent of companies had 30 percent or more female directors.

“Even less progress has been made in the pipeline for women officers and directors,” Catalyst chief executive Deborah Gillis said in the report, which was just the latest to detail the glacial progress women are making towards equality in business. The study examined 2015 proxy data compiled by EY.

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Women held a quarter of executive and senior level positions in the S&P firms, 36 percent of first and mid-level manager positions, and make up 44 percent of all employees, the study showed. Women hold just 4.2 percent of CEO positions in the S&P 500 — a number that will shrink when Xerox’s Ursula Burns, the only African-American CEO, steps down this year.

A study released Monday that analyzed 381 companies showed a similar trend for women in financial services. Women make up 20 percent of those companies’ boards and 16 percent of their executive committees, up slightly from a year earlier, said Oliver Wyman, a London-based management consulting firm.

The United States was above average, with 20 percent women on the executive committees. But progress has been so slow that women will not reach 30 percent of executive committee representation globally until 2048, Oliver Wyman said.

In another study released Tuesday, the LedBetter research group highlighted companies that market to women with little to no female representation on their executive teams. Among them were Mattel Inc., maker of Barbie dolls, and L Brands Inc., which owns Victoria’s Secret.

In April, a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP study of 2,500 global public companies showed that women gained less than 3 percent of new CEO positions. In the United States and Canada, 1.1 percent of new CEOs were female. And in January, the Government Accountability Office estimated it would take another 40 years before women reach parity in board seats among the S&P 500, even if they filled seats at twice the current rate.

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