Where women lose (on the way to the boardroom)

Without "bottom line" experience, corporate women are praised for their people skills and placed in positions that won't lead them to the corner office.

Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, says few corporations are successful at training women for the jobs that will most likely lead to the top executive tier. And women aren't planning ahead and asking for these opportunities. They are getting stuck in the HR and communications' offices.

On the occasion of women's history month, I decided to take a look at female CEOs. Are we doing as well as we think in matching our corporations with our population?

"The number of women on executive boards has dropped, actually it's sliding backward," says Spence, quoting numbers from Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization. "People think we've made it because there are a few visible women in high positions, because there are 10 women running Fortune 500 companies, but that's only 2 percent of the 500 companies."

Spence's organization is the largest women's professional and business association in the country. It publishes NAFE Magazine, a bi-monthly publication distributed to 65,000 members.

At America's largest companies, women comprise only 16 percent of corporate officers and 15 percent of board members. Of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies, only 6.7 percent are women. Even among the companies praised for their strategies to mentor and promote women, they are often not the top earners.

Women are task orientated and detail minded - why do they get paid less than their male counterparts in the same company? I asked Spence recently.

"It starts with mentorship," Spence says. "You need to know how to ask and negotiate. Women tend to think the first offer on the table is 'the' offer. Men know the first offer is the opening gambit."

My female friends complain about their wages, but never have I advised them to ask for more. I think, like most women, that we'll get it when we truly deserve it. Why do we so easily pass our fate into the hands of others?

It also goes back to the beginning of the woman's career. Women are not starting or advancing into the positions that really pay, in profit-and-loss, or "line jobs." Those jobs are the pool from which CEOs are selected. These are the jobs that watch the bottom line.

Spence says she's seeing the increased promotion of women in human resources, legal, communications and finance - these positions do not lead to the top. Profit-and-loss experience - running operations, sales and other revenue generation - is essential for those hoping to lead in business. Nationwide, only 11 percent of these jobs are filled by women.

"But women are significantly less likely than their male peers to have access to this experience."

I stopped to think about Carson City. We may not house any Fortune 500 companies, but our equivalents (casinos, hotels, development and manufacturing) are headed by men. There are exceptions, to be sure: Jennifer Russell, vice president of Capital City Entertainment; Lynne Keller, as GM of the Gold Dust West Carson City; Jeannette Kelley, vice-president of the Carson HorseShoe Club.

Women are not part of the network, Spence says, that gets them in. They're not in the bathrooms, bars and on the golf course. Which is why women should network in and out of the office and keep an eye on their career path early. Once saddled in an HR or communications' position, few find their way out. Women are also more likely to interrupt their careers with family.

"A woman needs to take responsibility for her own career. She needs to talk to HR about the career track she is most interested in. Plan it out. No one is going to help you out. Mentors are critical to your success. Make sure you have one at all times. And you can have several who have more experience than you in what you want to do."

Spence is author of the 2001 Random House book, "Be your own Mentor."

All of the association's top companies demonstrate progressive ways to nurture women's advancement to influential positions. IBM, for example, has 48 women running business operations totaling $100 million.

The 2007 NAFE top companies for executive women:

Aetna Inc., of Hartford, Conn.

Allstate Insurance Co., of Northbrook, Ill.

Colgate-Palmolive Co., of New York, NY.

Gannett Co., of McLean, Va.

General Mills, of Minneapolis.

IBM Corporation, of Armonk, NY.

Liz Claiborne Inc., of New York, NY.

Marriott International Inc., of Washington D.C.

Metlife Inc. of Long Island City, NY.

Patagonia Inc., of Ventura, Calif.

• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.


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