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Survey shows women executives have come a long way — slowly

The representation of women on the boards of Chicago’s largest publicly traded companies has reached the highest levels ever, according to the 17th annual census from The Chicago Network.

Still, progress remains slow, and at current rates, it will take more than six decades for women and men to be represented equally in those boardrooms and executive suites.

The 2014 report, which looked at Chicago’s 50 biggest publicly traded companies by revenue found:

  • There were 95 women in director positions, accounting for 17.9 percent of all directors. That’s up from 16.9 percent, and 91 women in the 2013 report.
  • Women executive officers rose to 15.5 percent from 14.5 percent. But the number of women in those posts, 79, is 15 below its peak of 94 in 2005.
  • The percent of women top earners fell to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent, and 33 companies have no women top earners.

“I think the best news is that the number of directors is at an all-time high,” said Kate Bensen, president and CEO of the Chicago Network. “It’s a steady increase, but … only one-third of all new board seats went to women.

“Most disappointing is the perception of stagnation in the C-Suite,” she added. “While we had a very slight increase this year, we’re still down from a peak of 94 in 2005.”

The report is based on fiscal year 2013 10-K and proxy filings.

The number of companies with multiple women executive officers increased to 20 — a jump of nearly 82 percent since 1998. But that is still down from a high of 27 in 2004, the report found.

Fourteen executive officers were reported to be multicultural women — that’s just 2.8 percent of all 511 officers.

The top five performers, as measured by number of women directors, executive officers and top earners, were: Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc.; Mondelez International Inc., Ingredion Inc., CDW Corp.; and Kraft Foods Group Inc.

Four companies had no women directors — Navistar International Corp., CNA Financial Corp., CF Industries Holdings Inc. and Hub Group Inc.

What’s key to speeding progress across the board?

“Leadership,” said Bensen. “There needs to be a strong commitment from CEOs and other top execs to make sure there’s an active effort to cultivate and promote the next generation of women leaders. … We also think that it’s really important to make sure they’re supporting those women who want P&L [profit and loss] responsibility because that’s the path to the CEO slot.”

She adds having an accountability culture is key.

“CEOs can influence a culture so managers are held accountable for their progress in this area,” she said, adding there’s incentive for them to do so.

“There’s abundant research showing companies with more diversity perform better financially, so even if they’re not altruistic, they should care for bottom-line reasons.”