The cover on Catalyst's 2011 report on women in corporate America.

Women in mid-life who have chosen to be part of corporate America continue to face unprecedented challenges, with a daunting economic environment that puts not only their opportunity for moving into senior management at stake but often their jobs as well. They rarely have sponsors who will bring them up through the ranks simply because they are the brightest, the most collegial, the hardest working, or the ones with unique perspectives that could keep their companies more competitive. They are blocked by prejudice against women and minorities in most of the executive suites at America’s largest companies. The lack of opportunity for women to ascend to the seats of power in these companies is a clear demonstration that meritocracy means little in the Fortune 500.

Women continue to be underrepresented in the most powerful positions in our society. Recent research underscores the fact that this situation shows no sign of getting any better. The 2011 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and Senior Management“examines women’s representation in corporate governance and senior management at the largest companies in the United States. This annual report provides critical statistics to gauge women’s advancement into leadership and highlights the gender diversity gap.” A separate Catalyst report, entitled 2011 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners looks at women in executive and highest-earning positions.

In 2011, women held 16.1% of all board seats. In 2010, women held 15.7% of all board seats. Women held 14.1% executive officer positions this year and 14.4 % last year. 136 of the Fortune 500 companies have no women in senior management even though women are often the primary consumer base for these companies. Bed Bath and Beyond, Citigroup, Costco, Direct TV, Dole Foods, Exxon, Levi Strauss, Omnicom, Delta Airlines, Rite Aid, Sara Lee, Sears, and Sprint are just a random sample of these corporations. The list of all 136 can be viewed on the Catalyst website.

Four of these companies that have millions of female customers are Costco, Citigroup, Omnicom and Delta Airlines.

Costco has 596 warehouses (stores) with 64 million card holders (members) and revenue of $89 billion. Out of its 161,000 employees worldwide, there was no woman found competent enough to occupy any of the top five management slots for this retailer that depends on the loyalty and purchasing power of women. How is it possible that a company that relies on women for a very significant part of its sales has no woman in the executive suite? The top five men at the helm of Costco received a collective $14 million dollars in compensation for 2010 alone.

 

On the Citigroup website, the company reports that it has 200 million clients in over 100 countries. That client base certainly includes a substantial number of women. In its mission statement Citigroup states that one of the four values that guide the company is leadership, defined as “talented people with the best training who thrive in a diverse meritocracy that demands excellence, initiative and courage.” And out of the 267,000 Citigroup employees, not one woman could be found who had the talent to break through their glass ceiling? The top five executives at Citigroup made a total of $32 million dollars last year.

 

Omnicom is one of the world’s largest ad agencies, operating in 100 countries with over 5,000 clients and 66,000 employees. They own the major ad agency BBDO Worldwide and the PR firms Fleishman-Hillard and Ketchum. Omnicom ad agencies’ clients include VW, McDonald’s, Clorox, and Johnson & Johnson. Many, perhaps most, of the customers for these products are female. The PR firm Fleishman-Hillard (owned by Omnicom) made the annual list of top 50 companies for executive women chosen by the National Association for Female Executives. The CEO at Omnicom alone made $10.7 million dollars in 2010, and the top five executives collectively brought home $23 million dollars. Maybe the National Association for Female Executives should push for a woman to become one of the top five at Omnicom.

Delta Airlines, one of the largest airlines in the world, serves more than 160 million customers a year with 80,000 employees world wide. At least half of those customers are women. Women were good enough to be flight attendants and more recently allowed in the cockpit, but still have not been given access to the rarified air of the executive suite. The top five executives at Delta made a total of $21 million dollars last year.

Women have few advocates in the board room, and individual shareholders have no say over the composition of senior management. Senior male executives ultimately determine the fate of other managers at their companies.

If we want to see competent women in leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies, we have few options. We can contact the members of the boards of these companies, or perhaps contact the executives of the companies. But most of all, women can take their business to competitors that demonstrate a willingness to put women in leadership roles.

We need to be outraged on behalf of the women in our age demographic in these companies. Society changes from the top. If women are not considered competent enough, are not valued for their talent and determination, or deemed to work as hard as men do for the same goal, then women at all levels of our society will continue to suffer.

 

Last week, Catalyst’s CEO discussed the report with CNBC, including its findings about the proven effectiveness of including women in corporate boards.