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November 9, 2011

Report: Number of Women Executives Remains Low

The number of women holding leadership positions in New York’s top companies continues to rise at a slow pace, according to a new study by Columbia Business School and the Women’s Executive Circle of New York (WECNY).

Topics: Leadership

The number of women holding leadership positions in New York’s top companies continues to rise at a sluggish pace, according to a new study by Columbia Business School and the Women’s Executive Circle of New York (WECNY).

Ann Bartel, the Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce Transformation, presented the findings during a WECNY event at Bank of America headquarters in New York on Thursday, November 3. Data was gathered from fiscal year 2010 for the top 100 revenue-producing companies in New York State according to Crain’s New York Business. The study found that among these organizations, women hold just 15.9 percent of board and executive officer positions. The majority of companies — 69 — have no women serving in executive roles; 15 have no women executives or board directors at all.

Though the 2010 numbers do represent growth from when the biennial study was last conducted in 2008, overall from 2006 to 2010, “the trend lines are not very encouraging, especially with regard to executives,” Bartel said. “There is steady progress, but it is very slow progress.”

However, a few industries boasted a strong female presence: those that cater to women consumers, such as retail, food and drink, and chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Cosmetic company Avon, which was recognized at the event, always gravitates toward the top of lists of companies with the most women executives, for instance. But three industries — building/construction, healthcare, and transportation — had no female executives.

“What is creating these differences across industries?” Bartel asked. “We can learn from those companies that are succeeding in diversity to help us have a brighter future.”

The event also featured a panel of accomplished women business leaders, who shared their own journeys with the attendees: Gwenn Carr, executive vice president, office of the chairman, of MetLife, Inc.; Sonia Dulá, head of global wealth management, Latin America and Canada, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and Joyce Roché, former president and CEO of Girls Inc. and a board member of AT&T, Macy’s, Tupperware Brands, and the Association of Governing Boards.

Carr said that she was not surprised at the latest study’s results. “The conversation has changed, but reality hasn’t changed as quickly,” she explained. “In my professional and social lives, I meet so many accomplished women, but we haven’t cracked the code. They’re in the pipeline to become leaders, but they never move to the next level.”

The panelists agreed that there are many possible reasons for women stopping short of the top spots in business, including motherhood, avoiding career risks, lack of effective mentorship, and too few women choosing to study science and technology, fields where the gender gap is particularly apparent. While organizational initiatives like teams dedicated to ensuring diversity of staff are important, Dulá said that leaders, male and female alike, have a responsibility to promote an inclusive culture. “It’s a mindset that comes from the top. The CEO has to believe in diversity and it has to be part of the culture.”

Beyond trends and institutional change, Dulá suggested that women should focus on what they can control in their own careers — and seize every chance to move ahead.

“Every job, no matter how small, is an opportunity to show what you can do,” Dulá said. “Great opportunities always take you out of your comfort zone. Learn to recognize them, then don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith.”