Women CEOs Slowly Gain on Corporate America

Ellen Kullman replaced Chad Holliday at DuPont dd Thursday to start 2009, which brings to 13 the number of female CEOs running the USA's largest 500 publicly traded companies.

That's a record. But it's only one more than last year, a year when Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin missed becoming the first female president and vice president, and a year when frustration continued to mount on the corporate side over the plodding progress of women.

It's not just that the number of female CEOs is barely inching up. Women now receive about six in 10 college degrees, yet near the top there remains slow progress in the number of female directors, officers, highest paid — and women in the pipeline, according to research by Catalyst, Corporate Library and others.

USA TODAY has tracked the stock performance of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 for years. The annual examination began in 2003, when female CEOs so out-performed men, and again in 2004, that it looked like there might be something to the gender advantage, or at least something to the theory that the glass ceiling was so difficult to crack that the women who made it to the top were more talented than their male counterparts.

Then came 2005, the ouster of Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, the decline in the number of female CEOs from nine to seven, and a 12 percentage-point stock market under-performance among the women who remained. In 2006 and 2007, performance of men and women was almost identical.

The year 2008 knew no gender in its devastation. The S&P 500 fell 38.5%, its worst year since 1937. But the S&P 500 performed 4 percentage points better than the average large company run by a female CEO, down 42.7%. The best-performing of the firms led by women was Kraft Foods kft, down 18% under Irene Rosenfeld. Sunoco sun fell 40% for 2008, but lost just 4% since promoting Lynn Elsenhans to CEO on Aug. 8 (the S&P 500 fell 30% that same period).

The year was bad enough to obliterate career performance. Nine of the 12 companies have now lost money for any shareholder who invested on the day the women got the job. The only exceptions: Susan Ivey at tobacco company Reynolds American rai and the two most-tenured women, Andrea Jung at Avon avp and Anne Mulcahy at Xerox xrx. Avon is up 65% during Jung's nine years, and Xerox is up 1% during Mulcahy's 6½ years. Reynolds is up 21% since Ivey began in 2004.

2008 was tough for all

In 2008:

•Sunoco stock declined steadily throughout, although the bleeding largely stopped under Elsenhans, 52, who replaced the retiring John Drosdick. In an e-mail to USA TODAY, Elsenhans acknowledged the decline and said that all refining companies have been hurt by lower margins and that the market has yet to recognize that the company's coke production and logistics businesses "differentiate us from our refining peers."

•Kraft Foods beat the S&P 500 by 21 percentage points. Rosenfeld, 55, appeared last month at the USA TODAY CEO Forum, where she said that corporate diversity in all areas continues to lag. Rosenfeld has been CEO of Kraft since 2006, but did not become a Fortune 500 CEO until the company was spun off from Altria in March 2007. Company stock is down 15% since.

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