It started with a premise for the Post-Gazette Business section on New Year's Day: Everyone in the department was to pick someone to profile off their beat for an interesting package on business movers and shakers.
No one at the newspaper anticipated what a firestorm it would start.
The flaming emails were first. Then the letters arrived, detailing just exactly what was wrong with us and our process. While they had good points, none looked at why, when it came to affecting business in Pittsburgh, women were not the people at the top.
But then the conversation started. Maybe the question was not why was the Post-Gazette so blind to women (in a department where half of the employees are women) but why aren't there more women in local leadership roles.
Nationally, just 16.1 percent of the directors of Fortune 500 companies last year were women, according to a study by Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates for better opportunities for women in business. That statistic is slowly creeping up, but women who were fighting for equal rights and equal representation decades ago thought there would be more gender parity by 2011.
"I don't think anybody's happy with that," said Rebecca Harris, director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University.
Catalyst also looked at the profitability of businesses and found that those with three or more women on the boards of directors did better in terms of return on sales, return on invested capital and return on equity than companies without women on their boards.
"The data shows that companies that have women on their boards and women executives do better," Ms. Harris said. "This isn't just an exercise in diversity, this is an exercise in doing better business."
Sandi DiMola, an attorney and the director of the Center for the Study of Conflict at Chatham University, said having a token woman on the board of directors is not enough.
"It presupposes that when you get that one woman in she's going to bring other women in, and maybe you can't presuppose that," she said.
What the past has shown is that many women who achieve board of directors status do not pull other women up behind them, but when there are three women on the board they are more comfortable bringing the issues that affect women, who are often the company's customers, to the fore.
Candice Morgan, the director of advisory services for Catalyst, said there are a number of reasons women do not rise in business, the first of which is that they lack role models or other women above them who have done it before.
Another reason is they lack the access to the unspoken network that many men have, such as similar interests in sports or activities that can build a camaraderie between a boss and subordinates. Often women don't relate to those interests so they may not have as much in common with the boss.
And a third issue, Ms. Morgan said, is women are still stifled by gender-based stereotyping that may label them as either too tough and aggressive. Conversly, if they are nice, they may be perceived as incompetent.
Ms. Harris said women are doing better in some places, such as in newer industries in the northern California technology hub. She pointed to Hewlett-Packard where Meg Whitman is now the CEO and Facebook where Sheryl Sandberg is the COO. Both women are in Silicon Valley in technology industries rather than the traditional Rust Belt industries of chemicals, steel and coal.
Heather Arnet, CEO of the South Side-based Women and Girls Foundation, said a promising trend is investor advocacy, such as state Treasurer Rob McCord's move to use Pennsylvania's proxy votes to vote against boards of directors that do not contain women.
She noted that while just six years ago 26 local companies didn't have any women on their boards of directors, last year it was down to 12.
This year, the makeup of the Post-Gazette's Top 50 public companies has changed, but when comparing companies that were on the list last year and this year, there's a net gain of six women on boards.
Despite the generally dismal numbers of corporate female leadership, Ms. DiMola said many younger women in her classes think the fight for women's rights has been resolved.
"When you teach young women, they think the women's revolution is over," she said.
Last week Ms. Harris, Ms. DiMola and Andrea Geraghty, a real estate lawyer -- all of whom took issue with the Post-Gazette's New Year's Day profiles of business people -- met for a discussion about what they saw as the barriers to women's economic achievement.
They said women address issues differently than men. "We have to teach women how to be less risk averse," Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Geraghty related the story of a court case in which her opposing counsel, who was male, ended the day banging on the desk about a legal rule, insisting he was right. Meanwhile, she told the judge she was pretty sure the rules were on her side, but that she would look it up.
She was right, and her opposing counsel conceded the point afterward. While by the next morning the issue was not important, the impression left on the court was one of a man who was sure and a woman who wasn't.
Ms. DiMola chimed in with her rule of 95 percent in which 90 percent of the time you are right, 5 percent of the time it doesn't matter and the other 5 percent of the time is when you are wrong. She said women need to stop worrying about being so sure and be stronger in their convictions.
Then there is the notion of staying in the game.
Ms. Harris said Facebook's COO Ms. Sandberg talked about women making sure they are part of the decision-making process. Many women, she said, when contemplating having children, take themselves out of the middle of business decisions before they need to.
"Don't get out of the game until you're really out of the game," Ms. Harris said. "Talk and act as if you're in the game. Don't be a wallflower."
On a societal level, Ms. Geraghty said women have to call out businesses and governments when boards are created.
In her own work -- as chair of Democrat Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald's Energy and Environment Vision Team, which is working to develop county policy -- she was pleased to see that Mr. Fitzgerald not only made sure about a third of her two dozen team members were women, but also named women as leaders of about half of his teams.
That's the type of inclusiveness she wants to see on all levels of government and business.
Ann Belser: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699. First Published March 20, 2012 4:00 AM