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.

•PepsiCo's pep stock was down 28% and is down 16% since Indra Nooyi, 53, took over in October 2006. Nooyi ranks No. 3 on Forbes magazine's list of the 100 most powerful women and is the highest-ranked CEO, ahead of non-CEOs such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, Queen Elizabeth and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

•Discount apparel retailer TJX (T.J. Max, Marshalls, A.J. Wright) tjx also lost 28% under Carol Meyrowitz, 54, and fell 30% since she took over in January 2007.

•Avon Products under Jung, 50, was down 38% after rising 20% in 2007. In December, Jung was named by Chief Executive magazine as one of the Top 10 wealth creators over the last three years.

•Agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland adm also barely outperformed the S&P 500, with a 38% decline, after being the performance champion in 2007 among women, with a 45% gain. ADM stock is down 29% since Patricia Woertz, 55, took over in May 2006. She was recruited from the oil industry to lend expertise to ADM's ethanol and biofuels expansion.

•Reynolds American lost 39% for the year, but gained 21% since Ivey, 49, took over as the first woman to lead a U.S. tobacco company.

•Sara Lee sle lost 39% under Brenda Barnes, 55, and is down 48% since she took over in October 2005.

•Western Union wu lost 41% under Christina Gold, 61, who worked 25 years with Avon Products. Stock is off 17% since Gold became CEO in September 2006.

•Xerox lost 51% for the year, but is up 1% for the time that Mulcahy, 56, has been in charge.

•Health insurance giant WellPoint wlp fell 61% under Angela Braly, who at 46 is the youngest among the women. WellPoint ranks No. 33 on the Fortune 500, which makes Braly CEO of the largest woman-led company since Fiorina was in charge of No. 11 Hewlett-Packard in 2005. WellPoint stock is down 49% since Braly took over in June 2007.

•Ride Aid rad stock under Mary Sammons, 62, crumbled 89% to 31 cents per share. Sammons was hired as chief operating officer in 1999 to help clean up an accounting scandal. Today, the company carries a debt load of $6 billion after its 2007 acquisition of Brooks & Eckerd. The stock was up 61% in 2006 and 147% in 2003, yet is down 93% since Sammons became CEO in June 2003.

The Fortune 500 lost two female CEOs in 2008 including its best long-term performer, Meg Whitman, who resigned at eBay ebay. She had been CEO since 1998, but eBay was not large enough to be on the Fortune 500 until 2005. Paula Reynolds engineered the timely sale of Safeco to Liberty Mutual Group for $6.2 billion, 51% more than the closing share price before the deal was announced. Reynolds has since joined American International Group as vice chairman in the aftermath of a government bailout aimed at keeping the giant insurer solvent.

Measuring women's impact

There are so few female CEOs of major corporations that it renders the sample size of USA TODAY's annual examination little more than a curiosity. With the Jan. 1 addition of Kullman at DuPont, 2.6% of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. However, women are doing better at the largest mega-companies. With Kullman, 52, now on board, 7.4% of the largest 81 corporations with annual revenue of $31 billion and more have a woman at the helm.

As recently as 1996 there was only one female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, co-CEO Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial, acquired by Wachovia in 2006.

If women are better than men at, say, thinking of long-term sustainability, it won't become apparent until they reach "critical mass," says Beth Brooke, global vice chairman of Ernst & Young, who is on the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women.

She says that without greater numbers, the women remain outliers and are fighting strong headwinds. Investors, for example, will be impatient with a woman who happens to think years ahead at the expense of quarterly earnings, Brooke says.

Separate studies in 2008 by Catalyst, an organization that supports expanded opportunities for women at work, and management consultant McKinsey & Co., found that companies with more female executives and directors perform better.

University of California-Irvine professor emeritus Judy Rosener says brain scans prove that men and women think differently. At age 79, Rosener says she's concluded that a company with a mix of male and female leaders, with their differing attitudes regarding risk, collaboration and ambiguity, will outperform a competitor that relies on the leadership of a single sex. It happens that companies are dominated by men, but they probably would not perform better if dominated by women. Women aren't better, Rosener says, but they bring to the table something that men don't have.

Women are paid worse at the top. A 2008 survey of CEO pay at 3,242 North American companies by the Corporate Library found that female CEOs earned more in base pay, but when cash bonuses, perks and stock compensation were included, women made a median $1.7 million, or 85% of what male CEOs made.

This year is not starting out much better. The January Harvard Business Review includes a 360-degree feedback study by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru. It finds that female leaders are seen by all around them to be strong in such traits as tenacity and emotional intelligence, but trail men in one important aspect: Their superiors, peers and subordinates say that women leaders lack vision.

Contributing: Matt Krantz

YOUR THOUGHTS: What will be the sign that women have finally shattered the glass ceiling?