Why the number of top female execs is so dismal

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Susan Story, CEO of American Water Works Co. AKIRA SUWA / File

It might be more productive to watch bread rise.

At least after a few hours, a lump of dough evolves to a fully-formed loaf, ready for baking.

But when it comes to women in corporate leadership - on boards, as executives, or among the top earners in the region's publicly traded companies, the statistics are more like matzoh - basically flat after five years.

From 2009 to 2014, the proportion of board seats held by women has barely budged in the region, up to 13 percent from 11 percent, according to a study released Tuesday by the Forum of Executive Women, a local group of senior female executives.

"The numbers are a little disappointing," said Deanna Byrne, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Philadelphia office, the accounting firm which analyzed the data. "They look pretty stagnant."

The matzoh metaphor also applies to the proportion of female chief executives, up to 13 percent from 11 percent, and for top earners, up to 10 percent from 9 percent.

Area nonprofits, such as universities and health systems, have higher proportions of female board members and executives, the study shows.

"We're moving in the right direction, but the progress is painfully slow," said Forum president Suzanne S. Mayes, a partner and board member at the law firm Cozen O'Connor P.C. "But how do we jump start the conversation around this issue in a meaningful way, which can help us accelerate the rate of change?"

And why is there such an imbalance at all?

Boards are getting smaller, meaning fewer seats become available - for everyone, not just women, said James Kristie, editor and associate publisher of Directors & Boards, a Philadelphia-based journal.

Board diversity advocates say that if boards instituted term or age limits, more seats would become available, Kristie said.

But, "limits are great in theory for promoting turnover, but most companies do not have a stated policy and when they do, it's frequently ignored," he said.

"I think most CEOs are not all that enthused about adding a bunch of new directors to their boards," he said.

Board collegiality, particularly if board members are well-qualified, is so valued that chief executives are loath to shake the structure. Even if they were on board, the CEOs aren't likely to influence enough shareholder votes to make changes, Kristie said.

Ample academic research has shown that diverse boards make better decisions, he said. "Everything is pointing to the benefits, and yet it's not happening. There's something else going on here that people can't pinpoint."

The excuse used to be that there weren't enough qualified women available, said Susan Story, chief executive of American Water Works Co., the 6,800-employee national water utility based in Voorhees.

That's not true now, she said. "It is easier to find white males, but if you want to get the best person, you have to take the time and effort to go out and cover the landscape."

And, she said, the pipeline needs attention. Boards want chief executives or chief financial officers as members, and there are still too few women in the executive suites.

"I think at the root we need to encourage more girls to be interested in math, science, and engineering," said Story, who followed an engineering degree from Auburn University with a master's in business from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. (She did more coursework at Cambridge University and Harvard University.)

In technical firms or utilities, women with technical backgrounds are more likely to be promoted, she said, and ultimately, as she has found, to be recruited for board positions.