Boardroom Equality Seen In 2064

Women have made progress in winning seats on top corporate boards in the last year. They'll probably have as many seats as men in another six decades or so.

That's how slow the rate of change is for women entering the boardrooms of the nation's top 500 corporations, the research organization Catalyst reported Thursday.

The number of women sitting on Fortune 500 boards rose to 11.1 percent this year from 10.6 percent last year, echoing similar increases over the previous five years, Catalyst said in its annual survey.

At that rate, an equal number of men and women will be on top corporate boards by the year 2064. Catalyst said of 6,064 board seats in the top 500 corporations, women hold 671 of them.

"It's slow progress, and slow progress is better than none, but it's slow," said Sheila Wellington, president of the New York-based group, which is devoted to helping women advance in business.

She noted that in 1993, women held only 8.3 percent of board seats, and only 69 percent of Fortune 500 companies had one or more female directors.

Today, 86 percent of corporations have at least one female director. Four companies - Avon Products Inc., Golden West Financial Corp., Beverly Enterprises Inc. and Gannett Co. - have 40 percent or more female directors.

Top female executives interviewed this week see little push for change in this arena among the nation's top companies.

"Men feel more comfortable with their counterparts," said Martha Seger, an economist and member of the boards of Amoco Corp. and Xerox Corp., among others. "These are people they see at the club, they golf with and there's a comfort level."

She and Wellington said women don't get many chances to win board seats because of slow turnover on boards, which have about 10 to 12 members. Most boards allow members to serve until they are age 70; vacancies don't come up often.

Many boards of directors and corporate leaders also seek candidates who hold top corporate titles, positions that few women in business have.

"People love to get active CEOs, particularly of premier companies," said Susan Kropf, executive vice president and president of Avon North America and one of the six women directors on Avon's 13-member board. "Yet there are fewer women in these positions."

Still, Catalyst reported that more than one-third of female directors have corporate experience compared with 27 percent last year, a trend that may show that more qualified women are entering the pool of board candidates.

The bigger the company, the more women sit in the boardroom, Catalyst found. The nation's top 100 companies in terms of revenue are twice as likely to have multiple female directors as those that rank between 400 and 500.

Catalyst didn't study reasons for this trend. But Wellington had a hunch.

"It may well be that those are the companies that are open to new ways,"/b> she said. "And that's what is demonstrated to be important in this economy."

Written By Maggie Johnson