Women in recent decades have increasingly moved into leadership positions in American society, with a glaring exception: The corner offices occupied by public company CEOs remain, overwhelmingly, a man’s world.

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Women in recent decades have increasingly moved into leadership positions in American society, with a glaring exception: The corner offices occupied by public company CEOs remain, overwhelmingly, a man’s world.

Just 6 percent of the CEOs at S&P 500 companies last year were women, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and the research firm Equilar.

Among public companies based in the Northwest, the numbers are even lower.

Only four of the Northwest’s 96 public company CEOs last year — or 4 percent — were female, according to a study by Equilar and The Seattle Times.

Special Report: CEO Pay

One of those women, Columbia Banking System President and CEO Melanie Dressel, died unexpectedly in February. Last month the bank’s board of directors picked her successor — a man.

Laurie Stewart was among the early women to lead a local financial institution: In 1989 she was named president of the credit union that evolved into Sound Financial Bancorp. At the time, she recalled, she was the board’s second choice; the top candidate, a man, turned down the job offer. She is now the bank’s president and CEO.

“It should be a very simple progression,” Stewart said of women moving up the leadership ladder to CEO. But breaking the final barrier has turned out to be surprisingly difficult.

“It’s still a tough, tough glass ceiling,” she said.

Female executives say a lack of diversity on public company boards is partly to blame. About one in five board members among Puget Sound area companies are women, which is in line with the national ratio.

Because directors tend to hire executives like themselves, male-majority boards are more likely to hire male CEOs. (Public-company boards, and CEOs, are also overwhelmingly white.)

It doesn’t help that senior female executives often move up through the ranks in human resources or marketing. The leading internal candidates for CEO are frequently the chief financial officer, the chief operating officer and sometimes the chief technology officer.

As for the availability of skilled female executives, the talent pool is abundant, said Phyllis Campbell, Pacific Northwest chairman for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“But they are typically not the ones looked at when it comes time for succession,” she said.

In her experience, Campbell said, some women tend to second-guess themselves: “Are we good enough? Is there a possibility of failure?”

Campbell knows these internal dialogues well. She cycled through most of them while considering whether to accept a promotion to Washington president of U.S. Bancorp more than 20 years ago.

She said her boss, Gerry Cameron, assured her that she was capable and ready, and would have his support.

“That made the difference for me,” she said. “I hope I play that role for others.”

In many leadership roles where women are underrepresented, they have made great gains in the last generation. About one in five members of Congress are now women, along with about one in four state legislators nationwide, according to Pew Research. About a quarter of the nation’s college and university presidents were women in 2011, a threefold increase from 1986.

But the percentage of public company CEOs who are women has only crept from zero to the single digits. Not one Fortune 500 company had a female CEO in 1995; today, about 5 percent do, Pew Research estimates.

Campbell and others are encouraging companies to make their boards of directors more diverse, on the theory that boards with more women will hire more female executives.

Women also continue to support mentorship and training programs that help aspiring female executives develop the skills they need to not just survive, but thrive, in the corner office.

In California, the state Legislature in 2013 adopted a nonbinding resolution that urged public companies to have between one and three women on their boards by the end of 2016, depending on the size of each board. Only about 20 percent of Russell 3000 companies in California met that standard by Dec. 31.

Nonetheless, legislatures in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have adopted similar resolutions, and California lawmakers expect to revisit the issue, said Annalisa Barrett, a clinical professor of finance at the University of San Diego School of Business.

So far such legislative pressure has not pushed California beyond the national averages: Last year about 5 percent of its public companies had female CEOs. “The numbers are pretty low,” Barrett said.

Laying the aspirational foundations for women can begin at an early age. Stewart, the president and CEO of Sound Financial, grew up in Sequim, where her parents and Girl Scouts gave her the courage to keep challenging herself.

“I know it sounds corny,” she said. But, years later, that mindset paid off. “I truly believed I could be the CEO.”

Despite their low numbers, female public company CEOs nationwide are doing better when it comes to pay.

The median pay for a female CEO was $13.1 million last year, up 9 percent from 2015, according to an analysis of S&P 500 companies by executive data firm Equilar and The Associated Press. By comparison, male CEOs earned $11.4 million, also up 9 percent.

Locally, two of the four women CEOs last year ranked among the Pacific Northwest’s 20 best-paid public company CEOs.