October 17, 2010 10:26 pm

‘Glass ceiling’ persists in US boardrooms

Women have failed to make significant inroads in US boardrooms over the past five years, according to fresh research that underlines how corporate America is yet to break the “glass ceiling” that prevents female executives rising to the top.

One in 10 S&P 500 companies have no female directors and women’s participation on boards has barely moved since 2005 when 12 per cent of large companies had all-male boards, according to a study of securities filings by Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm.

In spite of efforts by regulators to inject more gender diversity into boards, large companies such as Motorola, the telecoms group, Expedia, the internet travel agent, and Urban Outfitters, the retailer, have no female directors. One group, L-3, the defence and aerospace contractor, said it had never had a female director, but added it “carefully considers gender and racial diversity” when choosing board members.

Motorola said it valued diversity and that its last female director left in May. The group is planning to split into two next year and “each company is working to establish a more diverse board of directors”, it added. Expedia and Urban Outfitters did not reply to requests for comment.

Women account for more than 46 per cent of the US workforce, according to Catalyst, an organisation that promotes gender diversity. But the research found that they make up only 16 per cent of corporate directors, the same level as five years ago.

Julie Daum, the head of Spencer Stuart’s board and chief executive practice in North America, said the criteria set by boards when hiring new members often made it difficult for women to be picked. “Many companies say they want a former or current chief executive and there are very few women in the pool of candidates. The second pool is the financial experts one and, once again, women are under-represented there.”

The number of female chief executives did increase over the past few years, with 18 women at the helm of S&P 500 companies, two more than in 2009 and double the number five years ago, according to the study. In companies led by women, nearly a quarter of the directors are female, compared with 15 per cent in companies with a male chief executive.

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