Glass Ceiling: Women Scarce at Top of Corporate California

Women may have become a force in other professions, but they remain a conspicuous minority in the board rooms and executive suites of California’s 400 largest public companies.

Men still hold roughly nine of every 10 highest-paid management and board positions, a ratio that continues to remain largely unchanged in the six years the Graduate School of Management has conducted the “UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders.”

“What our study shows is that for a state that considers itself a hip, progressive trendsetter, California looks like anything but that when you peek inside the executive suites and board rooms of its 400 largest companies,” Dean Steven Currall said at the release of the latest study in December.

Women hold only 9.5% of Board Seats and Top Executive Positions




The survey, the only one of its kind conducted on the world’s eighth largest economy, relies on data collected largely from mandatory reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The study analyzed the 400 largest public companies headquartered in California as measured by market capitalization in June 2010. In a change from previous years, the study restricted the survey of top management to the five highest-paid executives designated in SEC filings.

Overall, women hold just 9.5% of board room seats and highest-paid executive positions, a figure that has remained statistically stagnant since 2005.

The smaller pool of top executives examined in this year’s study produced a smaller percentage of women, 8.8%, in those positions. But, when the same metric was applied to previous years, the latest figure represented only a slight increase from 8.4% in 2009. Only 16 of the top 400 firms have a female CEO, and 14 of those were on last year’s list.

The study also found a slight increase in the number of women directors, who now comprise 10% of board seats, up from 9.8% last year.

More than a third of the state’s biggest companies—141 of the 400—have no women on their boards or among their highest-paid executives, and not a single company has an all-female board and management team. In fact, bebe stores, inc., the popular women’s apparel retailer based in Brisbane, was the only company with gender parity among its highest-paid management and board positions.

Company Size, Industry and Location Matter

Several major trends and regional differences showed little change. The larger the firm, the higher the percentage of women directors, the study found. But there was no similar relationship between size and the percentage of women among the highest-paid executives.

Among seven counties—Alameda, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco—that are home to 369, or 92%, of the top 400 companies, San Francisco had the highest percentage of women directors, 14.4%, and among the highest percentage of women top managers, 11.9%.

Santa Clara County, the heart of the Silicon Valley, has more of the top 400—116 companies—than any other county and continues to rank near the bottom in both the percentage of women directors and executives.

Not surprisingly, high-tech industries continue to lag with the lowest percentages of women in top management and board positions. The consumer products and services sector has the highest percentage of women (18.3%) among the highest-paid executives, while real estate has the highest percentage of women among board directors (14.4%).

“Overall, the numbers are not changing much, possibly trending upward a bit, but very, very slowly,” said Professor Donald Palmer, who has directed the research for the past four years.

The study does not offer reasons why women remain so scarce at the top, but the chief executive officer of the nonprofit that partners with the School on the study said the consequences are becoming clear.

“Studies show that greater diversity company-wide improves measured risk taking, makes for better decision making and leads to healthier companies overall,” said Wendy Beecham, who at the time of the study’s release served as CEO of Watermark, a Bay Area organization that prepares women for top corporate positions.

A Blueprint for Change

At a high-profile Wall Street Journal conference in April, nearly 200 top leaders from business, academia and government examined what holds women back in the workplace—and set out an action plan for creating new opportunities.

The “Women in the Economy Task Force” summit highlighted the challenges girls and women face from kindergarten to the boardroom and set priorities across industries, in education and workplace culture.

Among the top recommendations: Convene CEOs from the nation’s leading companies “to identify, drive and publish the results of transformative, internal efforts to increase women at the top.” This CEO commission would publish results of corporate efforts to expand the number of senior executive women—including “company scorecards and metrics”—and consider setting public targets for women’s advancement.

At the conference, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who tops Fortune’s latest list of the “50 Most Powerful Women,” supported the idea and criticized fellow corporate leaders for failing to try hard enough to increase the ranks of women in upper management, according to the Wall Street Journal coverage. “We have to insist that CEOs get a pipeline and a development plan in place,’’ she was quoted as saying.

2010 UC Davis Study

By the Numbers *

  • 0 Not a single company has an all-female board and management team.
  • 1 Number of firms with gender equity on the board and among highest-paid executives: bebe stores, inc.
  • 8.8 Percent of women in highest-paid executive positions.
  • 9.5 Percent of female board directors and highest-paid executives overall.
  • 10 Percent of female board directors.
  • 16 Number of the 400 companies with female CEOs (4%).
  • 46 Percent of companies with no female directors.
  • 68 Percent of companies with no women among highest-paid executives.
  • 141 Number of companies with no female directors or highest-paid executive officers.

*As of June 1, 2010, from data compiled from company proxy statements and annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


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