In two high-profile firsts, women were named to lead General Motors and the US Federal Reserve this year — posts that had always been held by men. Yet women are still rarely found at the top.
In addition to Mary Barra at GM and Janet Yellen at the Fed, 2013 also saw Marillyn Hewson chosen to take charge of Lockheed Martin.
In Europe, Inga Beal was named to head British insurance firm Lloyd’s and Daniele Nouy was picked to lead the eurozone banking supervisor.
“We finally have role models,” cheered Tami Polmanteer, director of human resources for the Daymon marketing group.
Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper said “each time a woman gets a position like this, it is a victory because there are so few of them.”
But a similar wave of high-profile nominations a decade ago failed to trigger major changes.
Cooper contributed to Facebook top exec Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller “Lean In,” which encouraged women to take on more responsibility in business.
Today, more women graduate with four-year college degrees than men. Women hold around half of the mid-level management positions in big companies.
But the presence of women in top-level management tapers sharply: women hold just 15 percent of the top posts.
And the numbers drop even further in the biggest companies.
Just 4.5 percent of the bosses in Fortune 1000 companies are women, including Meg Whitman at the head of Hewlett-Packard, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Ellen Kullman at DuPont, according to Catalyst consultants.
“We would have to see a lot of women” named CEO, before “it even changes the percentage,” said Columbia University professor Katherine Phillips.
That said, over the past two decades, the numbers are improving, if slowly.
In 1995, not one of the Fortune 1000 companies was run by a woman, and just two percent were in 2005, according to Phillips.
Worldwide, women hold 11 percent of board seats, according to GMI Ratings.
But some countries are doing far better than others. In Finland, Norway and Sweden, where the governments have created parity quotas, women hold 30 percent of board positions.
“Italy and France are seeing significant increases in women’s representation following the passage of recent laws on board diversity,” GMI Ratings said.
But outside Europe, progress is slow, especially in the United States and Canada.
And the developed country with the worst record of women in the top levels of business is Japan, where just one percent of board member positions are held by women.
Certain sectors are particularly behind in promoting women, including finance and the sciences, where the number of women in top positions is actually decreasing.
Experts trace the difficulties in increasing parity to a lack of support from management, insufficient childcare, distrust in abilities and a stubborn cultural bias against women.
“Women are being judged more harshly,” said Marianne Cooper, referring to a study by consulting firm McKinsey.
“Women are more likely to get into leadership roles in times of crisis, (which) highly increases the likelihood of failures.”
In a perfect example, Hewson was promoted at Lockheed Martin as the company faced major budget cuts from the Pentagon and only after revelations of an “inappropriate” relationship by the previous pick for CEO.
And “women tend to earn less” than men in equivalent jobs across the board, said Cooper. In the United States, the difference is around six percent.
There’s also a “mommy penalty,” said Phillips, citing a study by a Stanford researcher that found women earn less as soon as they have children, because they are viewed as less invested.
The opposite is true when men have children.
A study of 130 countries on salary equality by the World Economic Forum found the countries with the best records were Malaysia and Singapore.
The United States was somewhere in the middle of the pack, and France, where women earn 27 percent less than men in the private sector, was second to last ahead of just Mauritania.