Little growth seen in number of women on company boards

Pittsburgh still lags behind the average of women at the helm

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The percentage of women who sit in Pittsburgh's board rooms edged up in 2010, to 13.4 percent from 12.8 percent in 2009.

But compared with the rest of the United States, the region still lags behind. Women held 15.7 percent of board seats last year at Fortune 500 firms nationwide, up from 15.2 percent in 2009, according to Catalyst, a New York nonprofit that tracks women in business.

The increase in females on Pittsburgh boards -- 66 vs. 63 the prior year -- was primarily the result of adding four new companies to the Top 50 rankings for 2010: Alcoa, formerly headquartered here and now based in New York; Bank of New York Mellon, the New York-based financial company with a major presence here; DynaVox, a South Side voice technology company; and Erie Indemnity, an Erie-based insurance firm.

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All four companies brought women directors to the list: Alcoa has three and the rest each have two.

One local firm from last year's list that gained a female director was ESB Financial, which added attorney Johanna Guehl for a total of two women directors.

Women's participation on public company boards has been flat since 2004, said Douglas Branson, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In a book published last year, "The Last Male Bastion: Gender and the CEO Suite in America's Public Companies," Mr. Branson profiled 22 female chief executives -- including Carol Bartz of Yahoo! and Susan Ivey of Reynolds America -- and describes some of the issues that have boosted or derailed their careers.

He said the financial crash diverted some companies' attention away from recruiting female directors.

In Pittsburgh, specifically, "It's a good ol' boy town," he said. "It's kind of like we take one step forward, then two steps back."

He agrees with a theory presented to him by a Philadelphia business consultant who suggested three is the ideal number of women to have on a board.

"A single woman is a token. If there are two, it becomes ... a threat. When there are three or more, you finally have allies, can speak your mind and speak with confidence. That rings true with me."

One way to improve the number of women in the board room is to increase the number of women in executive positions at corporations as a means of setting up "the trickle-down effect," he said.

But that's been a slow process in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Last year, women held 14.4 percent of executive officer jobs nationwide, up from 13.5 percent in 2009, Catalyst said.

Said Ilene Lang, Catalyst president and chief executive, in a statement accompanying the latest statistics: "Corporate America needs to get 'unstuck' when it comes to advancing women to leadership.

"This is our fifth report where the annual change in female leadership remained flat. If this trend line represented a patient's pulse -- she'd be dead."

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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