Marie Knowles is used to being the only woman in the room.
For the chief financial officer of Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), that's the way it's always been.
This soft-spoken blonde was raised by her father. When she was in high school, he petitioned the school to let her into a drafting class - a class reserved only for boys. It was an important prerequisite for engineering.
It paid off.
At the University of Southern California, Ms. Knowles was the only woman in the class of 1968 to earn a chemical engineering degree, and she was the first woman at USC to get a master's in chemical engineering.
"It was lonely," she quips, remembering when she was one of six women in a class of 600 at USC.
But life isn't so lonely anymore - at least in corporate America's top financial suites.
In less than five years, the number of women CFOs at Fortune 500 companies has jumped from 10 in 1995 to 25.
Several factors are propelling more women into this No. 2 spot on the corporate ladder: Those who started in finance years ago now have the qualifications needed to hold the top jobs; gender bias is declining; and the tight labor market is placing a premium on financial talent.
"Society is becoming more and more used to having women in positions of power," says Susannah Swihart, vice chairman and CFO of BankBoston, who started at the company in 1980 as a corporate banker. "Men also have become very used to working with and respecting professional women."
These new female faces on the executive floor, many speculate, could spell more women CEOs in the not-too-distant future.
"What you see is a beneficial spiral," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit group that works to advance women in business.
"When women become CFOs," she says, "they are sought after for board positions, for visible public-service positions, and then candidates for CEO."
At the same time, women in top positions send a message that the company is serious about diversity.
"When you have women in high levels of an organization, it tends to enlighten the organization," says Judith Sprieser, senior vice president and CFO of Sara Lee Corp. in Chicago. "Also very important, women in high levels tend to be attractors to other female talent."
More female talent, less gender bias
The pipeline theory may be the biggest factor launching more women into CFO jobs - a role that is more strategic planner than number cruncher.
"When I started working in the late '60s, there weren't that many women in the professional work force," said Knowles, in a recent interview in her 46th-floor office in downtown Los Angeles, which sports a breathtaking view of the San Gabriel Valley to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
"As time went on those numbers grew and grew," she says. "It takes a number of years to have the variety of experiences and the maturity to be in a major leadership role. It just takes time."
But an even bigger factor, they say, is that bias toward women in the workplace is diminishing.
"You don't see the things you saw 20 years ago," says Deborah Hopkins, who recently stepped into the CFO spot for aerospace giant Boeing in Seattle after completing a tour in the same position for General Motors Europe in Zrich.
In the past, companies automatically assumed women wouldn't be interested in an international assignment or a more challenging job, Hopkins says. They assumed that either her husband couldn't relocate, or "she wouldn't do it because of children."
"People have certainly learned that you can't make assumptions for someone," she says.
Some say the financial sector has been more open to women.
"When it comes to money, people don't care if you're a woman or a man or have pink polka dots," Knowles says. "They just want you to do a really good job."
Morgan McKeown, managing director of executive search firm Christian & Timbers' New York office, says his clients want to see a diverse candidate pool.
"There's clearly a recognition on the part of companies that, 'We want a balanced and diverse perspective,' which many times comes from the women in our senior management ranks," he says.
Experience a necessity
At the same time, women are getting smarter about the experiences they need in order to make it to the top.
"I didn't know anything when I started out in my career," says Sara Lee's Ms. Sprieser, who began her career in 1974 as a commercial banker.
"One piece of advice I got after 10 years was to go out and get some line experience," she recalls.
On her way to CFO, Sprieser was named president of the Sara Lee Bakery division, where she found a way to sell Sara Lee's famous frozen cheesecake in Mexico. The achievement got her noticed, and she was later promoted to CFO in 1994.
In addition, Sprieser was elected last fall to Sara Lee's board of directors. The move makes her one of the first women inside directors of a leading US company.
Similarly Knowles has done her fair share in the field during her 16 different assignments in the past 26 years at ARCO.
But while progress is evident, barriers also persist.
"I'm personally quite disappointed that we are only where we are today," Sprieser concedes. "At the current rate, in about 66 years we will have parity."
A sense of rivalry with men
Most of the women the Monitor interviewed agree women often still have to be better than their male counterparts.
"Biases do and always will exist. And they're not necessarily targeted at women per se," Knowles says. "But people are generally more comfortable dealing with other people who are like themselves. So whenever you introduce diversity, that's a difficulty."
Still, she says, "you focus on the business and on being effective. You don't focus on the problems or the barriers."
But Boeing's Hopkins says she sees the notion of women having to be better also falling away.
"Often women have felt you have to be a little better than the guy standing next to you. I'm not sure that's the same any more," Hopkins says. "Maybe this is a great indicator of progress."
Indeed, they all believe progress is inevitable.
"I have a teenage daughter," Sprieser says. "I'm really hopeful that by the time she's of working age that [gender] won't even be a subject. That's my dream for the next generation."