NEW YORK (MainStreet) After making significant strides in the past 30 years, women's progress in corporate boardrooms and executive suites seems to have slowed, according to the annual Spencer Stuart Board Index that examines the state of corporate governance among S&P 500 companies.
About 61% of S&P 500 companies have two or more women on the board, up from 55% in 2007 and 38% in 2002 while only 20% have three or more women as members on their corporate boards.
"America is at the forefront of equal rights and anti-discrimination when it comes to equal pay and women's right, but that doesn't translate into gender diversity or gender equity when it comes to fortune 500 and 1000 companies," said Nancy Mellard, national leader of CBIZ Women's Advantage, a program that directs the development of women professionals through focused leadership, mentoring and networking programs.
Despite acknowledgement by boards that diversity in the boardroom generally results in increased value for shareholders, the pace of change in the U.S. is discouraging. This year's study disclosed that women now account for just 17% of independent directors, which is up from 16% in 2007 and 12% in 2002.
"I think all of us who care about corporate governance and board performance believe that we collectively have much more work to do to increase the representation of women on boards and senior leadership teams, both here and around the world," said Julie Hembrock Daum, co-leader of Spencer Stuart's North American Board & CEO Practice.
About 9% of the S&P 500 companies still have no female directors while twenty of the S&P 500 CEOs in 2012 were women, which is just 4% of the total.
"The progress in the past has been bringing a woman on board but in today's world progress is no longer a token woman on the board," Mellard said. "It's not enough. Our definition of progress today is having up to 40% to 50% of board members being women especially when the firm's products are used by a majority of women consumers."
While progress seems to have stagnated in the U.S., the representation of women on boards has grown significantly in several European countries that have made board diversity a priority. Many European boards are looking to recruit experienced female executives from the U.S., particularly those with specialized expertise in highly sought-after areas such as digital media, emerging markets and finance.
"Europe is more aware of the importance of gender diversity. Many countries are enacting laws that require corporations to ensure that a certain percentage of their board members are women," Mellard said.
Norway, Finland, Sweden, France, Denmark and the Netherlands all surpass the U.S. in female representation on boards. In Russia, 36% of senior managers are women and 35% of senior management in Thailand is made up of women.
"When you look at the numbers, it validates the obvious statement which is the U.S. is behind as a nation because we are still using the good old boy network to build corporate boards and the good old boy network is intact because it's still about who you know, which is just another definition for the good old boy network," Mellard said.
--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet