Women in business: No progress

Interracial businesswomen working on laptop.

When I hear from the folks at Catalyst, the leading nonprofit that seeks to expand opportunities for women and business, I usually brace myself for bad news. Today's release of the 2011 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors was no exception.

Sadly, women in business have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago, despite the advances of the 50 most powerful women in business.

Here are some of the sobering conclusions of the survey:

-- Women held 16.1% of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7% in 2010

-- Less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women board directors

-- About one in 10 companies had no women serving on their boards

-- Women of color still held only 3% of corporate board seats

-- Women held 14.1% of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared with 14.4% in 2010

-- Women held only 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5% of top earners

-- Fewer than one in five companies had 25% or more women Executive Officers and more than one in four had zero.

When I met Ilene H. Lang, the President & CEO, Catalyst a couple of years ago, I gave her a hard time. As a woman who had owned her own firm, I tried to poke holes in some of her arguments -- weren't women opting out of the workforce and then falsely expecting that they could get back in when they wanted to do so, on their own terms? Ilene smacked me down with lots of research and I am a full-blown convert to her cause.

What seems preposterous about the current state of affairs for women in business is previous Catalyst research that proves how much companies have to gain by advancing women to leadership positions. Lang notes that there is a "powerful correlation between increased women's leadership and better business performance."

Don't believe it? According to Catalyst, companies with more women in top leadership positions, on average, far outperform those with fewer. Additionally, in a post-crisis world, where we now know how board leadership failed in so many organizations, a long-term Catalyst study (The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Representation on Boards (2004-2008)), found that gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with better corporate performance, and not by just a little. Companies with three or more women board directors in four of five years outperformed companies with zero women board directors by 84 percent return on sales, 60 percent return on invested capital, and 46 percent return on equity.

The numbers speak for themselves. The big question is: when will companies finally wake up and take action?

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    Jill Schlesinger, CFP®, is the Editor-at-Large for CBS MoneyWatch. She covers the economy, markets, investing or anything else with a dollar sign. Prior to the launch of MoneyWatch in 2009, Jill was the chief investment officer for an independent investment advisory firm. In her infancy, she was an options trader on the Commodities Exchange of New York.

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