A seat at the boardroom table doesn't guarantee a woman will earn as much as her male counterpart, a research group reported Monday.
The nation's highest-paid female corporate executives earn 68 cents to every dollar earned by the highest-paid men, according to Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit group that works to advance women in business. The median total compensation of men in the study was $765,000; the median for women was $518,596. Median means half earned more and half less.
That's a wider gap than in the U.S. work force as a whole, where women earned 76 cents for every dollar men made in the first quarter of 1998, according to Labor Department statistics.
Catalyst studied the executive pay gap as part of its annual census of women at the top ranks of corporate America. Sheila Wellington, president of the group, said a number of factors contribute to the difference, from age to prior experience to salary negotiation skills.
"There is not one simple, single explanation," she said.
Women are gradually getting more high-level jobs. This year, women accounted for 11.2 percent of all corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies, up from 10.6 percent last year. For the first time, more than half the companies had two or more female corporate officers.
Two companies, CoreStates Financial Corp., which has since been acquired by First Union Corp., and retailer Nordstrom Inc., are heading toward parity, as women held 40 percent of the officers' posts.
But at many companies, the biggest paychecks go to men. That's because men hold 94 percent of the so-called "line" positions, with direct responsibility for corporate profits. A company may have female vice presidents in charge of the legal department, corporate communications or human resources, but a man is still more likely to be chief financial officer.
As a result, Wellington said, women are building up more responsibility within a company but may not be putting themselves in line for the biggest paycheck of all, the chief executive officer's.
"Boards really want their CEO candidates to have had profit-and-loss responsibility," she said.
Among Fortune 500 companies, there are only two female CEOs - Jill Barad of Mattel Inc. and Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial Corp.
Wellington said both women and businesses can take steps to get more women into the upper echelons of corporate America.
"Women have to be willing to take on line jobs, which may be riskier, and may be more visible," she said. At the same time, corporations should work to retain and promote talented women, and guide them toward jobs that can prepare them to succeed top executives.
Nordstrom, a Seattle-based retailer, routinely promotes from within the company, said spokeswoman Brooke White.
"In the company as a whole, 70 percent of our employees are women," she said. "It naturally follow that women will be well-represented at the top levels."
For its study on pay, Catalyst used the five highest-paid corporate officers, combining salary and bonus, as detailed in each Fortune 500 company's 1997 proxy statements. Its annual census surveyed all corporate officers listed in the proxy statements.
The study didn't include stock options, an increasingly lucrative part of executive compensation packages, because disclosure standards for the options vary too widely.
By Eileen Glanton