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In 2012, many strong women have stepped into the spotlight -- not to mention very important leadership posts. Well-known financial reform advocate Elizabeth Warren won Massachusetts' Senate seat, and is expected to have a role in the Senate Banking Committee. Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO ) hired Marissa Mayer to try to turn the company's fortunes around. Former FDIC head Sheila Bair has continued to issue economic warnings and wisdom, and released an eye-opening book on the financial crisis.
This is all great news for those of us who know women can make very good leaders. So why is it that a new study from nonprofit research firm Catalyst describes "glacial progress" for female leaders in corporate America in 2012?
Catalyst's report showed that women had just 14.3% of executive positions and 16.6% of board seats as of June 30. The growth in females serving as president or vice president of a major business unit of the companies studied could hardly be called "growth," at just 1.4% since 2011. Catalyst also reported that 27.8% of Fortune 500 companies had no women in the highest positions as of June 30.
Sure, we've come a long way. Meg Whitman's taking the helm at troubled Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) is one high-profile gig, albeit an incredibly difficult one. Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) saved some face when it brought one of its strongest employees, Sheryl Sandberg, onto its board after controversy regarding its lack of female directors as a newly public company.
Still, even as women are making major progress in powerful positions where they're most needed, Catalyst's report indicates that overall, they're still not gaining in the top corporate posts or boardrooms in America.
Maybe these companies don't want to do better
Maybe the companies that are still aiming for homogeneous executive teams and boards are led by those who simply like things the way they are, even if that means no progress for profit or anything else.
After all, in 2012 we received increasing evidence that women actually make a positive difference in organizational excellence in the business world. Earlier this year, Credit Suisse Research Institute revealed that shares of large-cap companies with female directors outperformed those with all-male boards by 26% over a six-year period.
Last March, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman released survey data that indicated women may, in many ways, actually be better leaders than men. The data showed that at all career levels, females actually rated higher than men in 12 of the 16 competencies the survey measured as components of outstanding leadership.
Looking for real progress in 2013
Hopefully some of the major victories for female leadership in 2012 will pave the way for more real progress in 2013. Obviously, the stage has been set for female leaders to try to tackle some of the biggest problems facing corporate America and our economic well-being.
Catalyst, which originated the report, hopes to help speed up the "glacial progress" by offering a directory of female board candidates. Databases like that will hopefully help prove that corporate apologists' favorite excuse -- that women who are qualified to be directors are a scarce commodity -- is just that, an excuse. Somehow, I find it an outlandish idea that they truly aren't out there.
Investors should pay careful attention to whether their companies' boards and executive ranks show stagnation instead of the kind of progress that can help spark real change, as well as profit and performance.
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.