By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - For advocates of gender equality, this week's ouster of two of Corporate America's most powerful women served as a reminder of how little progress U.S. companies have made in promoting women to executive positions.
In particular, Yahoo Inc's decision to fire Chief Executive Carol Bartz -- by phone, no less -- pointed out how few women had made it to the top of companies tracked in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.
That roster dropped to 17, a little more than 3 percent of the total, after Bartz's exit. The news came late on Tuesday, the same day that Bank of America Corp removed Sallie Krawcheck as head of its global wealth and investment management business.
"While the ouster of a number of top Wall Street women cannot necessarily be tied directly to the glass ceiling or sexism per se, the numbers aren't good," said Deborah Ancona, a professor of organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. "Women fill a minority of top leadership positions in corporate America."
While women represent about half of the nation's white-collar workers, their numbers thin as one looks up the organizational chart. They represent just 14.4 percent of executive officers at Fortune 500 companies, according to data from Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that advocates for women in business.
The number of women at the top of S&P 500 companies has inched up over the past decade, from five in 2001 to 18 at the end of 2010, according to data from executive search firm Spencer Stuart.
"If you want to call that progress, I think that's pretty bad," said Deborah Soon, a senior vice president at Catalyst. "That's an 'F,' quite frankly."
SMALL CLUB, LINGERING BARRIERS
Just two of the 30 iconic U.S. companies on the widely watched Dow Jones industrials average currently have women at the helm: DuPont Co, which named Ellen Kullman CEO in 2009, and Kraft Foods Inc, which Irene Rosenfeld has headed since 2006.
A third Dow company, Hewlett-Packard Co, is currently run by a man but has had two women at its helm: Carly Fiorina from 1999 through 2005, and Cathie Lesjak, who served as interim CEO from August through October 2010.
While it is not in the Dow, PepsiCo Inc also has a woman at the helm -- Indra Nooyi.
Academics and advocates attribute the limited number of women in top jobs to subtle forms of sexism -- one where a male contender for a job might question whether a female rival's performance would be hurt by family responsibilities.
"Often an issue comes up at the peer level, where men are competing against women. There might still be some subtle glass-ceiling barriers," said Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale University School of Management.
Women also have a harder time finding "sponsors," informal mentors who both advise them on career choices and advocate their cause when opportunities for advancement or high-profile assignments arise, said Catalyst's Soon.
If there is a bright spot in the firings this week, observers said, it is that they show women executives are held to the same performance standards as their male counterparts -- once they get into CEO-level jobs.
"I don't think they are given any more time than male CEOs ... you are beholden to your shareholders and you have to make things happen," said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc, a consulting company that helps laid-off executives find jobs.
But that does nothing to mask the fact that few women make it to the corner office, he acknowledged
"When each one of these CEOs leaves, it's like a wound almost," Challenger said. "It's like someone's leaving that's just got there, that in many ways by her success or failure sets the stage for others to come, because there just are not that many."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; additional reporting by Mike Tarsala in New York and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; editing by John Wallace)