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Women in Business Leadership: Up Against a Second Glass Ceiling

More women are shattering the glass ceiling, only to find another one preventing them from reaching the pinnacles of the business world, a study says.
Image: People stand on a glass staircase
People stand on a glass staircaseSpencer Platt / Getty Images file

More women are shattering the glass ceiling, only to find another one preventing them from reaching the pinnacles of America's business world

Although more than 80 percent of American companies have at least two women on their boards, only 60 percent have two or more women on their elite executive committees, the British consultancy firm 20-first said.

In its annual Gender Balance Scorecard, 20-first says companies today need to look more closely at the number of women on their corporate executive committees, which are usually made up of senior board members and so-called "C-suite" executives who can make executive decisions on behalf of the board and define company policy.

“Closer inspection shows there’s a long way to go,” 20-first CEO Avivah Wittenberg-Cox said in a Harvard Business Review blog post about her company’s findings.

Rather than focusing on the number of female board members, looking at executive committee makeup acts as a better gauge of the progress — or lack thereof — being made towards gender equality in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy.

That’s because most women who do make it onto executive committees are slotted into roles that perform more support tasks. Only 17 percent of executive committee members at the 100 largest U.S. corporations are women, and two-thirds of those are in roles like HR or communications.

“There has been no significant change in these percentages over the last three years,” Wittenberg-Cox said.

Terri McClements, US Human Capital Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the lack of senior women executives was detrimental to getting major change on issues such as equal pay.

"The pay gap is exacerbated by the lack of women in senior leadership roles," she told "As this study indicates, women hold fewer C-suite roles in general and are much less likely to be CEOs.

"Since CEO’s are the most highly paid executives, we won’t reduce the compensation gap until we decrease the leadership gap."

In ranking the top 100 U.S. companies by their degree of executive committee gender integration, 20-first found that only two — Target and TIAA-CREF — achieved what it defines as executive-team balance: a minimum 40 percent of both men and women.