Women continue to be severely underrepresented in top corporate leadership positions and at current rates of progress it will take 40 years for women to reach parity with men, a new report has suggested.
The study by U.S-based non-profit research body Catalyst looked at women executives in the Fortune 500 and found that most U.S companies had made scant progress in advancing women, especially women of colour, to leadership and top-paying positions over the past decade.
If this rate of progress continued, it could take 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in corporate officer positions, it concluded.
In the past three years, average growth in the percentage of corporate officer positions held by women fell dramatically to 0.23 percentage points per year, the lowest yearly gain in the past ten years.
Between 2002 and 2005, the total number of women corporate officers increased by a mere 0.7 percentage points to 16.4 percent.
"This tenth anniversary census is a wake-up call to business leaders. Although the total number of corporate officer positions has declined since 1995 and women's representation has proportionately increased a bit, the continuing gender gap in senior leadership, especially among women of colour, demonstrates a persistent uneven playing field," said Ilene H Lang, president of Catalyst.
According to the census, the average Fortune 500 company had 21.8 corporate officers in 2005; on average, women held only 3.6 of these positions.
Women occupied only 9.4 per cent of clout titles (those higher than vice president) up from 7.9 per cent in 2002.
More than half of the Fortune 500 had fewer than three women corporate officers.
Only eight companies in the Fortune 500 were led by a woman chief executive in 2005, and none of those companies were among the Fortune 100.
Women held only 6.4 per cent of top earner positions, up just 1.2 percentage points from 2002.
And fully 75 per cent of Fortune 500 companies reported no women as top earners.
The study also showed that women of colour held just 1.7 per cent of corporate officer positions and represented only 1.0 per cent of Fortune 500 top earners in 2005, suggesting that little had been done to remove the multiple and intersecting barriers that hindered the advancement of women of colour.
Men of colour fared only slightly better, holding 6.4 percent of corporate officer positions.
"Smart companies know that developing and retaining top talent yields solid results," said Lang.
"Women have the education, expertise, experience, and ambition to advance to these top positions in much greater numbers. However, this census reveals that some companies have yet to understand the compelling business case for diversity and women's advancement or to take meaningful steps to develop and retain women leaders."
The study also found correlations between certain factors and the number of women reaching upper management levels.
Companies that were ranked higher on the Fortune 500 list had greater numbers of women in senior positions.
Also, there were more women in corporate officer positions at companies in industries in which women represented 49 per cent or more of the total workforce, including finance, insurance, real estate, retail trade, and services.
The economic impact of diversity in leadership had become increasingly evident as U.S. businesses expanded into new markets, cultures, and workforces across the United States and around the world, the study also found.
"Leading by example, CEOs and upper management can effect tremendous change. The first step is to recognize the strategic business case for diversity and inclusion so that everyone grasps the opportunity and understands what's at stake," said Lang.
"Companies that proactively and successfully harness all their talent will sustain significant advantages over competitors that don't," she added.