Companies with diverse workforces can compete more effectively. Yet corporate boardrooms and executive offices still lack one source of diverse viewpoints: women.

When it comes to the stocks in your portfolio, female points of view may be an undervalued, if not outrageously underutilized, advantage.

The invisible woman
Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that stands up for increased opportunities for women, recently released a report revealing that women experienced little forward progress in the realms of compensation and placement in corporate boardrooms in 2010.

Among its disappointing findings: Men with mentors enjoyed more promotions and higher rates of pay than women, while women with mentors were far less likely to experience the same benefits from mentorship as their male peers.

Of the Fortune 500 companies Catalyst examined, 136 had no female executives whatsoever. These included ExxonMobil, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B), Citigroup (NYSE: C), and Sears Holdings.

Companies with the best showing of female executives included Gap (NYSE: GPS), Limited Brands (NYSE: LTD), and Western Union (NYSE: WU).

Designing women
The past year did see some growth in this realm, but it was pretty unimpressive. Women commanded 14.4% of executive positions, a modest increase over 13.5% last year. When it comes to the best-paid executives, 7.6% were women, up from 6.3% last year.

Changes in female presence on corporate boards were dismal. Women had 15.7% of board seats this past year, just half a percentage point higher than last year's tally.

Personally, I'm no fan of quotas. Regardless of anything else, merit should always be the main concern in promoting and hiring. But many corporations may fail to adequately, rationally assess true merit, and in consequence ignore the myriad benefits female employees can add to a company's competitive advantage.

Forbes recently pointed to a Harvard Business Review article on the importance of retaining female workers in an era when many women decide to exit the workforce. While women's work methods aren't easily quantifiable (nor is the cost of losing women workers easily measurable in the monetary sense), many female traits are essential in an innovative, robust corporate workplace. Companies should strive to keep women on their payrolls, and be open to promoting them to the top ranks.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the advantages women generally bring to the workplace include:

  • Resourcefulness -- doing more with less.
  • Collaboration, including listening skills and group-oriented problem solving.
  • The ability to multitask, and to absorb and integrate different viewpoints quickly and effectively.

Needless to say, companies that don't pay attention to these strengths may lose faster routes to a better business, even as they increase their overall risks.

A new year to think differently
There's plenty of evidence that female perspectives can be a secret weapon in business. Many corporate managements (and shareholders) probably don't quite understand this, so they severely undervalue it -- to their own detriment.

In finance, cognitive diversity in groups helps avoid potential bubbles and other would-be disasters. Groups of people whose backgrounds, temperaments, and experience encourage them to think and analyze in different ways can often make decisions more aptly and accurately. When everyone thinks the same way, things can go very wrong in investing and business.

Unfortunately, Catalyst's 2010 report on women's lagging role in the workplace isn't too comforting in that respect. Let's hope that in 2011, more corporate managers and shareholders will rethink the way they value women in the workplace, and better appreciate their ability to drive a more robust, innovative workforce.

Berkshire Hathaway and Western Union are Motley Fool Inside Value selections and Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing a covered strangle position on Western Union. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, ExxonMobil, and Limited Brands. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.