Are Companies Trying to Cover Up Their Lack of Senior Women?

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 9:02 AM EDT

The marked absence of women in the upper echelons of corporations has been exhaustively documented by advocacy groups, Catalyst, and academics.
A standard method of figuring out how many women occupy board and senior executive seats is to tally them up. You go through annual reports and SEC filings (proxies make fun reading!), add up the number of Jennifers, Janes, Justins and Johns and see how many boys there are and how many girls.

Pretty simple stuff, except for the Leslies, Evelyns, Terrys, and Pats. That's an easy fix: call the investor relations staff and find who who's what, add those folks into the right columns, and voila! Statistics created.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a consultancy aimed at increasing the number of women on boards and in top executive ranks, doesn't think that this tried-and-true approach is so easy any more. When compiling the second edition of her Womenomics 101 survey of American, European and Asian companies, she believes she has detected a pattern of deliberate obfuscation. Companies are more likely to list just first initials and last names, leaving off the gender-cuing names. They are also less likely to publish photos, which are even better than names at helping outsiders count up the boys and girls. She divines these changes as not a sign of corporate parsimony (full-color annual reports with pictures are danged expensive!) but as "a trend to less transparency."

Is this an issue ripe for women shareholders to take up? Actually, the business case for having women in top positions is now so well documented that both men and women share fiduciary responsibility to push for more women executives, she responded. Corporate governance watchdogs are also taking up the cause.

Oh, before I forget: the actual results!

Wittenberg-Cox found that 87% of U.S. companies have at least one woman on their executive committee, compared to 44% of European companies and 23% of Asian companies. She rightly observes that two-thirds of the American women at that level are in support positions - human resources, marketing, communications and legal - as opposed to moneymaking operational positions, such as heads of divisions or regions.

These are safe, unremarkable criticisms. I'd rather see Wittenberg-Cox tackle some more complex topics. Here's one: how many women directors hold multiple seats, and thus are counted several times as a woman board member? Of course, many men hold multiple seats, too, but because there are so few women directors, those who hold multiple seats have a disproportionate amount of power. Now, that would make for interesting reading.

Image courtesy of Morguefile user grietgriet.