Women at the Top

In 1982 Juanita Kreps, a former secretary of commerce and vice president emeritus of Duke University, spoke at a dinner hosted by Catalyst, a nonprofit women's research group based in New York.

At the dinner Dr. Kreps made a prediction: "A decade from now women directors will be more numerous, more knowledgeable about business matters, more widely represented on board committees, younger, and probably more vocal.... They will handle routine corporate issues with ease.... Many will be chief executive officers."

Kreps was right: More women are board directors today than a decade or so ago. In fact, women held 10.2 percent of seats on boards of Fortune 500 companies in 1996, breaking through the 10 percent barrier for the first time, according to a recently released Catalyst report.

The number of women on Fortune 500 boards rose from 9.5 percent in 1995, 8.7 percent in 1994, and 8.3 percent in 1993.

That's good news. Besides what they contribute to the board itself, female board members can be good role models for other women in the company. They show female recruits that upward mobility can be limitless. And they are proof to clients and consumers that the company recognizes the value of women in the top spots.

But Kreps got it wrong on one score. Currently, among the Fortune 500 at least, there are no female chief executive officers. That will change next month when Jill Barad, a director and president of Mattel Inc., becomes chief executive. Her appointment will leave 499 male CEOs.

There's a connection between the number of women on a company board and the number of women holding the highest titles in the firm, according to Catalyst. Companies with three or more women directors are four times more likely to have a female president, a female chief operating officer, or a female executive vice president, for example.

The task for the next decade will be to move beyond compartmentalizing by gender. When President Carter named Kreps secretary of commerce, he implied that it wasn't easy to find a qualified woman for such a spot. That excuse no longer flies. Male-dominated corporate boards have to become enlightened enough to promote the most qualified people, even if they're women.

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