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Madam Director

Tokenism isn't dead, but it's fading in one area. Women now hold seats on 86 percent of the boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies.

That's progress. More than 37 percent of the 500 giants of US industry have more than one woman director. Boards that have passed the token stage (a solo woman) rose 29 percent over the past five years.

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But this particular glass ceiling is not close to shattering. The annual Catalyst census also shows that the overall percentage of women on big company boards has only inched up to 11 percent.

Furthermore, the number of women who are "inside" board members - executives from within a company - is stuck at just above 1 percent. That's little changed from five years ago. Women find the route to top management jobs hard.

But trends are changing.

Women CEOs keep emerging. The latest example: General Motors' naming of Cynthia Trudell as president of its Saturn car division. What's more, nearly half the 64 women newly seated on Fortune 500 boards in 1998 came from corporate management.

And there are firms where about half the board seats are held by women. Golden West Financial Corporation, long famed for running one of the best ships in banking in terms of both service and return to its shareholders, has a board consisting of five women and four men. It's not totally surprising that Golden West is the first firm to cross the parity line. It has a husband-wife team leading it as co-CEOs and co-chairmen.

Significantly, the savings industry has the second highest percentage of women directors (21.6 percent). That only slightly trails the soap/cosmetic industry (23.9 percent). The figures for advertising and marketing firms are surprisingly low (5.7 percent), considering that female consumers are so heavily sought by marketers.

We don't want to suggest that either customers or owner-stockholders should push for anyone but highly qualified individuals, male or female, to sit on boards that steer policy and oversee management. To do otherwise would be to place political correctness above common sense.

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But the overall record of women on boards proves their competence. As Catalyst president Sheila Wellington points out: "Boards with multiple women directors make sense, particularly as we find ourselves in a primarily knowledge-based economy, where women are as capable as men."

Good point. Meeting adjourned.

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