Beth Bull

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–After years of corporate America repeatedly being chastised about the inequities of women in top positions and how important those women can be the success of these companies, the message finally seems to have gotten through to the top.

Women now hold 15.7 percent of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies, up from 12.5 percent in 2000. This is one of the largest increases in the past few years, according to a recent census report by Catalyst,a New York City-based organization that studies women and business trends. The numbers were just 8.7 percent in 1995, when Catalyst first began tracking them.

“Over time, we have seen that companies understand that they need to hire from the entire talent pool for top positions, and that is more and more including women,” says Meesha Rosa, senior research associate at Catalyst. “More and more, these companies are obtaining recognition as good places to work and are attracting better and better job candidates.”

Women now make up 2,140 corporate officer positions, out of 13,673 such positions at the Fortune 500, Rosa adds. In other promising results, 429 of the Fortune 5000 companies have at least one female corporate officer, up from 410 companies in 2000 and 385 in 1995. Women also are 5.2 percent of top-earning corporate officers, compared to 4.1 percent in 2000 and 1.2 percent in 1995.

“While there is still room for more progress, it seems that the word has finally gotten out to corporate America and women are rising above the old glass ceiling,” says Oklahoma City-based Terry Neese, co-founder of Women Impacting Public Policy, an advocacy group, and former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners. “Companies are realizing that to best serve a mixed population of consumers–in which women often make household buying decisions–they need to have the same kind of diversity at their helms.”

Women of Color Still Sparse in Corporate America

However, the large corporations have not done as well in hiring and promoting women of color. Women of color only represent 1.6 percent of corporate officers, up from 1.3 percent in 2000, according to the study, which was released in November.

For women to rise to positions of authority, they need to seek out jobs that put them in control of making major decisions, Rosa says. “This includes taking risky assignments that will give women great visibility in their companies and get them noticed by their CEOs.”

One way to get to such positions is to look for employment with companies that have more progressive policies toward promoting women. At Minneapolis-based General Mills, for instance, 42 percent, or 9,000 professional-level employees, are women, and 23 percent of corporate officers are female, says Lydia Mallett, 48, chief diversity officer, who has risen through the ranks herself. Her company’s chief executive officer has made it a point to look for women and minority men to move into top positions.

“I articulate my expectations clearly and have let others know what I want and that I look to be considered for new opportunities,” Mallett says. “You need to let others know that you want to be on a fast track and that you are ready and available to rise to the challenge.”

Beth Bull, 44, treasurer at Dallas-based Texas Instruments, moved into her position about 10 months ago. She has been with the company for 20 years in 13 different finance jobs and realized that she was at the kind of company that would make top positions attainable for women. The company has formal mentoring program, as well as 18 employee-led initiatives to promote people in with diverse life experiences, not only women but also persons of color, gays and those with physical challenges, such as being deaf, Bull says.

“It just makes sense,” Bull adds. “We can improve our design and products by diversifying the thoughts and creativity brought to the table by leaders at our company. You can only do that by having a more diverse management team with different ideas and strategies.”

Tell Boss What You Are Looking For

Bull also recommends that women let those in jobs of authority let them know what they are looking for.

“A woman may not be considered for a position, especially if she has kids, since it will be assumed that she may not want to work such long hours,” Bull says. “You have to be your own advocate.”

For instance, when Bull was seven months pregnant with her second child back in 1994, there was an opportunity for an assignment in Taiwan that she knew could lead to greater advancement. While some may have assumed she wouldn’t have wanted to go, Bull made it a point of saying that she would go to Taipei for one month, come home to have her baby and then relocate her family to Taipei. She was given the assignment and wound up living abroad for three years. This eventually led to a vice presidency.

“I knew I could handle this and let those above me know the same thing,” Bull says. “Women need this level of confidence in themselves and their abilities to be able to really move up in the corporate environment.”

Laura Koss-Feder is a freelance business and features writer who covers small businesses and career/workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Time, Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Newsday and Family Circle.

For more information:

Catalyst Project–
“2002 Catalyst Census of Women CorporateOfficers and
Top Earners in the Fortune 500″
(Adobe PDF format):

Women Impacting Public Policy: