WHEN FIDELITY Investments promoted Ellyn A. McColgan to president of distribution and operations recently, one of the images that popped into my head was "Man Bites Dog." That, of course, is the old saw about what makes news.
Even in the 21st century, it's headline news when a woman gets a top-notch job in corporate America. And that's not some strange notion of out-of-touch newspaper editors. The numbers show that women are not cracking the glass ceiling; by some measures, their progress has not only stalled, but is declining, even in places that claim to be progressive, like Massachusetts.
Among the 100 largest public companies in Massachusetts, nearly half -- 47 -- have not a single woman among their executive officers, according to financial documents filed in 2006. Startlingly, that's an improvement -- the figure was 48 percent in 2005 and 65 percent as recently as 2003. The Boston Club, the women's forum that conducts this survey every year, found that women hold just 11 percent of top executive positions in the Massachusetts 100.
Nationally, the record is slightly better. Sixty-four companies in the Fortune 500, or nearly 13 percent, still have no women on their top management teams, and women hold an embarrassingly small 15.6 percent of those executive officer positions. According to Catalyst, the women's advocacy group that compiled these numbers, that figure is down from 16.4 percent a year earlier.
A look at who's in the boardroom shows a similar pattern. In Massachusetts, women hold 10.8 percent of board seats, vs. 14.6 percent nationally.
And 43 percent of the Massachusetts companies have no woman director, vs. 11.6 percent nationally. That, too, shows backsliding -- a year earlier, 10.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies had female-free boardrooms.
To be fair, Massachusetts lags in part because the sample companies are smaller than those in the Fortune 500; larger companies, maybe because they attract more scrutiny, tend to have more women in their ranks. The Boston Club also uses a stricter definition of executive officer than Catalyst, according to Toni G. Wolfman, an executive-in-residence at Bentley College's Women's Leadership Institute. Either way, the record is dismal.
How is it that, decades after the country started talking about gender equality, women are still so scarce in executive suites and board rooms? It's not for lack of trying. More than half the US managerial and professional workforce is female. Women have been earning more than a third of all the MBA degrees granted in the United States since the 1980s. Women are starting their own businesses at twice the rate of men, and those businesses are growing at twice the rate of all firms. A survey by Catalyst shows that women are just as ambitious about achieving top corporate jobs as men are.
There's been a lot of talk lately about women fleeing corporate America because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to advance. Perhaps. But doesn't it seem just as likely that women are leaving because they are not allowed into corridors of real power even after they've made the sacrifices?
Meanwhile, the men who run these companies are ignoring a huge talent pool, acting as if it were 1963. No customer or shareholder would let them get away with antiquated attitudes in other areas -- imagine how quickly their competence would be questioned if they devised a marketing campaign for a black-and-white television world. It should be no different for personnel matters.
Who are these companies?
There's also Kronos, which calls itself a "human capital management software company" and clearly ought to know better. And there's American Dental Partners, which tellingly uses a large image of a woman on its home page, but has no women in its top ranks.
Among those who managed to find a woman director but lack women officers are Thermo Fisher Scientific, Boston Properties, CMGI, Investor Financial Services, Clean Harbors Inc, Varian Semiconductor, PolyMedica, and Lojack.
The men who run these companies should be blushing. After all, in another Catalyst survey, male chief executives admitted that a key reason women have not entered C-suites and boardrooms at a faster rate is that they -- themselves -- had failed to take personal responsibility for seeing that women rise.
Judith H. Dobrzynski , formerly a senior editor at the New York Times, Business Week, and CNBC, is a writer in New York.