By Brooke Sutherland
— Women made few inroads this year in joining U.S. corporate boards or executive teams, even as high-profile appointments at companies such as Yahoo spotlight the potential for greater parity.
Women held 14.3 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 companies as of June 30 and 16.6 percent of board seats, figures that show "glacial progress" in boosting female representation, according to a report published Tuesday by Catalyst, a non-profit researcher studying women and business.
Catalyst's research indicates growth in female corporate leadership has stalled, signaling Marissa Mayer's rise to the top job at Yahoo and Sheryl Sandberg's board-seat victory at Facebook are the exceptions. Less than a fifth of the Fortune 500 had 25 percent or more board seats filled by women, while more than a quarter had zero women in executive roles, Catalyst data show.
"The lack of progress toward closing this gender leadership gap is, to put it frankly, troubling," Rachel Soares, a senior research associate at New York-based Catalyst and lead author of the report, said in a telephone interview. "The companies that are taking deliberate and sustained actions to advance women in leadership are in the vast minority, and all the work that they're doing is only providing enough momentum to maintain the status quo of women lagging men."
Women's share of executive officer positions, defined as president or any vice president in charge of a principal business unit of the company, rose 1.4 percent this year from 2011, Catalyst data show. Among Fortune 500 companies, 27.8 percent had no women serving in top jobs at the end of the second quarter.
"I'm very frustrated," Toni Wolfman, executive adviser at the Center for Women and Business at Waltham, Mass.-based Bentley University, said in a phone interview. "There's a lot of talent there that's going to waste if companies don't figure out how to support and advance women in their companies."
On corporate boards, 51 companies in the Fortune 500 had all-male directors as of June 30, Catalyst data show.
Growth in female board representation has stagnated even as data from the Credit Suisse Research Institute show that companies perform better when they have women directors. Shares of companies valued at more than $10 billion that had female board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent worldwide over a period of six years, according to the report.
"Companies with women at the top, in executive positions and on the board, are being shown to be more profitable," said Betty Spence, president of New York-based National Association for Female Executives, which provides resources for female professionals and business owners. Progress in increasing representation "is paltry in comparison to the talent that is out there and is not being tapped," Spence said in a phone interview.
Companies that already have at least one female director are more likely to appoint more women than those with all-male boards, according to a separate report from Ernst & Young LLP released Monday. While women are joining U.S. company boards at an increasing rate, with 40 percent of current female directors attaining their positions within the last five years, change has been incremental, Ernst & Young said.
To achieve greater gender parity, Catalyst will build a directory of CEO-backed female board candidates and encourage member companies to both sponsor women for addition and draw from the list when making their own director nominations.
"It's not fun to write the same headline year after year," said Brande Stellings, vice president of corporate board services at Catalyst. "We wanted to come up with a solution."
Catalyst derives its data from the Securities and Exchange Commission and National Association of Insurance Commissioners filings.