Women hold 10.6 percent—or 643—of the total 6,081 board seats on Fortune 500 companies, an increase of 18 percent since 1994, and of three percent in the past year, according to the 1997 Catalyst Census of Women Directors of the Fortune 500. Currently, eighty-four percent—419—of Fortune 500 companies have women board directors, up from 417 companies last year.
"We are pleased that women continue to make progress in achieving representation on corporate boards," said John Bryan, Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee Corporation, which annually sponsors the study. "It is especially noteworthy that the larger and more successful companies are among the leaders in recognizing the benefits of having one or more women on their boards. These companies are gaining an important competitive edge by more fully capitalizing on the increasing role of women in the business world." The Census shows that of the 419 companies with women on their boards, 181 have more than one woman and 31 have three or more.
For the first time this year, a Fortune 500 company has achieved gender parity on its board. Golden West Financial, a savings institution in California with a woman as chief executive, has led the way with five women and five men on its board. CEO Marion Sandler said, "It takes time to change a board. You have to make it a priority. Women have a lot to offer, not because they're women, but for their ability." She also pointed out that the company's women directors serve as role models for employees.
Catalyst finds that 444 individual women currently serve on boards, a number that has increased 26 percent since the 1994 figure of 352 women. Fifty-three of the 444 women were not on a Fortune 500 board last year. Catalyst analyzed the occupations of the 53 new women directors and found that 38 percent hold operational and managerial positions in corporations, and 75 percent of these hold one of the following top titles: chairman, CEO, COO, president, CFO, executive vice president, senior vice president, or vice president. Examining the entire group of 444 women on boards, Catalyst finds the greatest share—27 percent—working in corporate positions, with two-thirds of them in line positions. Other occupations include academia (16 percent), entrepreneurs (15 percent), and foundation and nonprofit executives (13 percent). Such areas as legal, government, investment, medicine, and consulting comprise the remainder.
Catalyst President Sheila Wellington noted that "the profile of the typical woman director has evolved as women's operational and managerial experience pushes them into the senior executive ranks. If a board wants to add a woman now, the pool of qualified candidates is there." However, Ms. Wellington expressed concern at the diminishing rate of increase in women directors. "It's clear which companies are committed to women's advancement. They've added two, three, four women to their boards."
Ms. Wellington called it "no coincidence" that Fortune 100 companies are more than twice as likely to have multiple women directors as those in the bottom fifth of the Fortune 500. Similarly, Catalyst finds a statistically significant correlation between the presence of women directors and companies that carried over from last year's Fortune 500 list to this year's list. Companies established on the list are more likely to have women on their boards than companies just joining the Fortune 500.
Catalyst has traced the number of women on the boards of directors of top companies over a period of years and first published the Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors in 1993. The Census lists the Fortune 500, indexed by rank, industry, and state, with the names of women on each board. Catalyst, founded in 1962, is the national nonprofit research and advisory organization with a dual mission: to enable women in business and the professions to achieve their maximum potential and to help employers capitalize on the talents of their female employees. Catalyst is supported by leading corporations, professional firms, and private foundations. Catalyst's Corporate Board Placement service works with corporations to identify women for their boards of directors.