A Bird in the Hand? (Dearth of Female Bosses)


Today the NYT had a long feature in the business section (by Julie Creswell) on a question of particular interest in this shop: Why aren’t there more women bosses in corporate America (or for that matter, lefty non-profit America or magazine publishing)?

According to Catalyst, which charts these things (and lamentably hands out positions on its own board to CEOs of some of the most nefarious anti-women companies): Fewer than 2 percent of Fortune 500 companys have female CEOs. And when it comes to their boards, 53 companies have no women as directors, while 182 other companies each have only one woman on the board.

Creswell drives her piece by focusing on those rare birds: female CEOs (and, tellingly, fomer CEOs) like Carol Bartz, who:

Despite her hard-won reputation as an astute businesswoman, Ms. Bartz found herself repeatedly skipped over during a recent meeting of business and political leaders in Washington. The reason was that the men at the table assumed that she was an office assistant, not a fellow executive. “Happens all of the time,” Ms. Bartz says dryly, recalling the incident. “Sometimes I stand up. Sometimes I just ignore it.”

That the piece largely hangs on fomer CEO or CEOs from fairly obscure companies is telling. Not only because there aren’t many chicks at the top but because:

Women — particularly those who have made it to the top — may also shoulder some of the responsibility for the dearth of female C.E.O.’s. There is little consensus among them over how to approach the topic of women in power, or, in fact, whether the issue should even be addressed. Representatives of nearly all of the Fortune 500 female chief executives contacted for this article said that their bosses were either “too busy” or did not want to participate in an article about female C.E.O.’s. They said that these executives preferred to be acknowledged for their accomplishments, rather than for being women.

Yeah, but…

Another camp of women argues that until stories of women landing top jobs are no longer newsworthy — that is, as long as they remain curiosities or oddities — and until women’s occupation of the c-suite reaches a statistical par with men, women owe it to future generations to continue to address the topic.

“The truth is, left alone, I think the situation would get worse,” Ms. Bartz says. “I think the reason you see roughly 2 percent of Fortune 500 companies run by female C.E.O.’s is because there has been some discussion about the issue. If the topic didn’t continue to be highlighted as important, I do think that percentage would slide backward.”

So when reporters ask Monika and I, what are the larger implications of having two women lead a magazine? — (and can I just note here that the NYT chose to run the news of women taking the helm of America’s largest progressive/left/investigative magazine in a one-line Arts section [not the B-Section, where such things are usually chronicled] round up, and beneath news of an Eartha Kitt performance) — I can’t answer much better than this:

“Women on boards are the ones who pay attention to the pool of employees and succession planning and whether there are women and people of color coming up in those succession plans,” says Vicki W. Kramer, a management consultant and co-author of a study, “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance,” [which found that] a single woman on a board is typically viewed as a “token woman” and is unlikely to drive female-related issues because she does not want to be seen as a one-issue director, Ms. Kramer says. The addition of a second woman to the board only slightly changes the environment… The tipping point is the presence of three women on a board. “Somehow, at three, gender goes away and they are much less concerned about being seen together,” Ms. Kramer says.

Problem is: Only 76 boards among the Fortune 500 have three or more female members.

So here’s my pissed off midnight promise. Starting tomorrow, our reporters will track down those nine-odd Fortune 500 female CEOs or their flacks and reprint here whatever it is that they tell us. And meanwhile, we’ll go to those companies who don’t have any female leadership in the “c-suite” as the NYT called it (did Julie C. mean that as a cheeky double entendre? I can only hope) and ask them, wha’ up with that?

And then we will circle back to the media…

WE DON'T KNOW

What's going to happen next as the headlines grow crazier and more disconcerting by the day. But we do know the job of an independent, unrelenting press is more important than ever—and the ongoing commitment of MoJo readers to fight for a democracy where facts matter and all can participate is absolutely vital.

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  • Clara Jeffery

    Clara Jeffery is Editor-in-Chief of Mother Jones and recipient of a PEN America award for editing. You can follow her on Twitter.