Women Still Not Landing Top Jobs in Corporate America

The highly publicized firing of Carol Bartz by the Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) board and the departure of Sallie Krawcheck at Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) in recent weeks is the latest reminder of a trend taking place across so many American corporations: a decline in the number of women in leadership positions.

Women hold 14.4% of executive positions, and what we have seen over time is that number flat-line, says Deborah Gillis, Senior Vice President, Membership and Global Operations at Catalyst, a nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business.

And its not just that the number of female CEOs is not growing; women now receive about six in 10 college degrees, yet at or near the top spots of companies there remains slow progress in the number of female directors, officers, and highest paid and also women in the pipeline, according to research by Catalyst.

Last weekend, women gathered in New York for the Women Inspiration and Enterprise Symposium to tackle some of the issues women face in the workplace.

Dee Poku, co-founder of WIE Symposium,  says the conference is designed to inspire inter-generational dialogue. This generation of women leaders has to inspire the next, says Poku.

The Symposium, in its second year, draws up to 500 women ranging in ages from 25 to 45, as well as a number of college students who are invited to attend. The organizers say the theme of the conference was what it means to be a woman now.

Poku explains, we all have choices, sometimes choices are empowering or they are confusing and limiting.

What is the explanation for even fewer women in executive roles today than before? One of the reasons, Catalyst research suggests, is that women continue to face stereotyping in the workplace.

There are assumptions made about what women want, says Gillis. The evidence shows that in the workplace, women are often looked at for take care-type behavior rather than take charge behavior.

When women act outside of those stereotypes, we see pushback.

Another key aspect for women to rise through the ranks is sponsorship. Catalyst research shows that men are much more likely to have access to high-level sponsors -- men in senior positions within the firm -- who advocate on their behalf, which leads to advancement and opportunity.

The fact is that women dont have the same access to those influential leaders, says Gillis.

But the business case for having more gender diversity is clear; in the Fortune 500, the firms with more women leaders had better performance. Firms with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest womens representation. The finding holds for both financial measures analyzed: return on equity, which is 35% higher, and total return to shareholders, which is 34% higher, according to Catalyst research.

The conference over two days is hosted by Sarah Brown, wife of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and fashion designer Donna Karan.

Dr Jill Biden, educator and wife of VP Joe Biden, kicked off the symposium as the keynote speaker..

What we need to see is this backroom sponsorship happening between men in the organization really brought to the forefront to give women access, says Gillis.