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Where are the Women: U.S. Boardrooms May be Missing the Boat?

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The results of the 2009 Catalyst Census of women in leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies are in - and they aren't pretty.

In 2009, a year when America endured the worst recession in sixty years, women held just 15.2 percent of board seats. Again. The level has been essentially flat since 2003. The percentage of women in executive office positions also remained low this year, at 13.5 percent, and women held only 6.3 percent of top-earner positions. What's stunning is that almost 30 percent of companies had no women executive officers at all. This means the pool of women who would be considered obvious candidates for corporate board seats is small and not increasing.

Moreover, in our recent study of women and men MBA graduates during this recession, we found that women in senior leadership positions are losing their jobs at three times the rate of men, potentially perpetuating a gender gap in the future. Younger women coming enthusiastically into the workplace are likely to be less engaged when they see the number of women in top leadership decreasing.

One way to break this cycle and close the gender gap is to start at the top. In short, the glass ceiling can be broken from the top down by appointing more women to boards of directors.

Our research shows a predictive link between women board directors and corporate officers: companies with more women on their boards, on average, will have more women corporate officers five years later. The effect is even more pronounced when you look at women in line positions, rather than the staff roles women have traditionally held .

Other countries are already doing this. In Norway, it's legally mandated that women hold 40 percent of the seats on the boards of public companies. Spain has a similar quota that is being phased in over several years. Canada and Italy are considering similar legislation. And earlier this month, French lawmakers introduced a bill that would require that women hold 50 percent of board seats. Such a law, the majority party leader explained, would provide "a much-needed electro-shock" to male-dominated French businesses.

So what's holding us up? We're not Norway or France, of course, but corporate America could use a jolt too. "Give it time." has run its course. The theory that the percentage of women in leadership roles would eventually rise to reflect women's clout in the marketplace and large numbers in the work force hasn't panned out.

One bright spot in our analysis this year is that the number of companies with three or more women on their boards continued on a steady uptick. Since 2003, the number of companies with three or more women on their boards has risen 42.6%. Catalyst research shows that companies with more women in leadership, on average, outperform those with fewer women, and those with three or more women board directors do even better. It may be that when these companies add more women directors to their board, they also experience the fresh perspectives, creativity, and independent thought that diversity can bring to corporate governance.

With the growing consensus that companies need to increase the number of women on their boards and in top leadership, U.S. companies need to act now or risk losing ground to global competitors that are adding a critical mass of women to their boards right now. Recognition isn't enough.

Clearly, you can't be a global leader without women in your leadership. Companies based in the U.S. shouldn't need the jolt of legal mandates to move forward and add women to their top ranks.