There was a time when corporate titans were right to be nervous about Catalyst. The pioneering women's research organization, which opened its doors in 1962 (a year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique), has long been regarded as a powerhouse in tracking and promoting the advancement of executive women. Its annual awards, now in their 20th year, confer star status on companies for doing groundbreaking work. Its research reports have been pointed and precise about what was holding women back, often giving data that allowed everyone to see which companies operate as men's clubs.
But that was last year. When Catalyst released its 2006 census of women at America's 500 largest companies a few weeks ago, a breakdown by company was missing. Instead, a short report on the group's Web site noted that women were "losing ground" and "dramatically underrepresented at the highest levels of business." The percentage in corporate officer and director positions fell, to 15.6% and 14.6%, respectively, from 16.4% and 14.7%.
Don't look to Catalyst to help spot the worst offenders. President Ilene H. Lang says it takes too much time and there's little value to publishing the data by company. "We're not in the shame game," she says. "We don't find that publicly embarrassing people achieves anything." It certainly used to. The day before Jeffrey R. Immelt became chairman of General Electric Co. (GE) in 2001, he told BusinessWeek that he'd cringed at a photo in The New York Times showing no women among GE's top 31 officers: "It haunted all of us." Immelt consulted with Catalyst, got more women into the senior ranks and, in 2004, won a Catalyst Award.
That Lang insists nobody cares about such specific information—"except for a couple of people in the press"—may say much about the mindset in today's corporate suites. Some talk about "diversity fatigue." Gender pales next to hot-button issues like going green or expanding in China. Lang says it's still a priority for the member companies that fund its $11 million annual budget, including $1 million in advisory fees.
Who are those members? More than 340 multinationals, including Amgen (AMGN), Dell (DELL), FedEx (FDX), and Whirlpool (WHR), all four of which have no women among their top-paid corporate officers. The membership list also includes recent Catalyst Award winners like Safeway (SWY), BP (BP), and Chubb (CB). Each pays $10,000 to $100,000 or more annually, in part to associate themselves with the Catalyst name. Says Lang: "We're a corporate membership organization that's here to serve our members."
Catalyst's reputation was built on being more than a diversity consulting service. Lang takes pride in "asking tough questions." Julie Hembrock Daum, a former Catalyst executive now at search firm Spencer Stuart, says "there's no other organization out there that has the brand name, the access, and the credibility to take on this issue." But, adds Toni G. Wolfman of Bentley College Women's Leadership Institute, "Catalyst has to earn its reputation.... Somebody has to keep the pressure on, and disclosure is part of the solution."
Lang believes the best way to promote women is to reward companies that do so. Catalyst honors efforts through annual awards; four were handed out this year to Goldman Sachs (GS), PepsiCo (PEP), PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Scotiabank. The chief executive of each company came to New York's Waldorf-Astoria on Mar. 21 to pick up the honor, while more than 60 peers and 1,600 others looked on.
After so many years of giving multiple awards, it's worth asking if it's getting more difficult for Catalyst to find groundbreaking work. Lang says the bar just gets higher.
If dozens of companies have done so much, though, why do so few have women at the top? It's not like women haven't been flooding into law schools and MBA programs for decades. And Catalyst has been drawing record crowds at its events. But it's hard for a company to look cutting-edge with a corporate lineup that evokes the 1950s. Newell Rubbermaid Inc. (NWL), which sells such staples as Goody hair products and Graco baby goods, has a 13-member leadership team composed of white men. That lack of diversity was clear in Catalyst's 2005 Census. Last year, it hired two senior-level women to lead diversity and organizational development programs. "We're taking action to ensure that our employee base better reflects our diverse consumer base," says spokesman David Doolittle.
Would Newell Rubbermaid have bothered if nobody had highlighted the dearth of women at the top? Maybe. Lang notes that Catalyst is about to post a list of the 58 companies with no female directors. As for the tougher job of advancing women into the top ranks, she says, "there's a lot of power in looking at the overall numbers." Sure. But former Catalyst President Sheila Wellington points out that when it comes to looking for top women at each company, "there's a lot of power in the word none.'"
By Diane Brady