Nearly half of the 1,000 largest U.S firms have no women in the upper echelons of their senior management, and a fifth of the rest have only a symbolic presence, damning new research has revealed.
The study by Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth found a complete absence of women executives in 48 per cent of the largest U.S. firms.
A further 10 per cent had either just more than two or more than three female principal executives within their ranks.
The study, concluded the business school, cleared showed why women had not broken through the boardroom glass ceiling in greater numbers – and why they were unlikely to do so in the future.
Author Constance Helfat, a professor at Tuck, estimated that the proportion of female chief executives would only increase from the current level of about 1.7 per cent to about 4.9 per cent by 2010 and 6.2 per cent in 2016.
While 6.2 per cent was more than triple the current percentage, this did not seem very impressive when one considered that by 2016 it would have been about 40 years since women entered corporate management in force, she added.
The Tuck research paints a much more negative picture than one in October by executive search firm Christian & Timbers and communications agency Capital Com.
This suggested North American firms were actually doing much better when it came to getting women on executive committees and boards of directors than their European and Asian counterparts.
Its study of the 300 largest companies in the world found there were twice as many women at boardroom level and on executive committees in the U.S and Canada than there were in Europe.
The Tuck research found that the principal factor influencing the number of female executives in a company was its industry.
Some of the predictable industries were trucking, where women constituted just 3.8 per cent of high-ranking executives, and soaps and cosmetics, where the figure was a much more creditable 13.1 per cent.
Perhaps surprisingly, given their male image, computer software (13.4 per cent) and transportation equipment (15.7 per cent), were among the top ten industries, while furniture (4.2 per cent) was among the bottom 10.
The results supported the widespread impression that women were underrepresented in finance positions, said Helfat.
But, contrary to popular belief, they were overrepresented in accounting and legal affairs and held their own in strategy and information technology.
More optimistically, some companies were now clearly aggressively hiring and promoting women into their top executive ranks – and where women broke through they generally did well.
"In order for women to continue to make and accelerate the sort of progress that our data indicate, they need to reach executive rank in the first place. Therefore getting qualified women into the executive hierarchy is critical," said Helfat.
Aggressive hiring and promoting of women also required an available talent pool, which was still a major issue that needed to be addressed, she pointed out.
"This has particular import for the still low proportions of women in line positions, which are an important route to the top of the executive hierarchy. Unless firms find ways to move women into line positions and retain them, the route to the top will remain much more difficult for women than for men," she added.
Achieving the goal of getting more women into the top hierarchy would require commitment and leadership from America's most senior executive, she concluded.
Another factor influencing change could be, in effect, "sisterhood", recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles International and women's network Women Corporate Directors argued last month.
Its study argued that women who aggressively supported each other were more likely to earn their passage on to corporate boardrooms.