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Women left off CEO track despite high-ranking jobs
The lack of operational experience is also hurting women's chances to sit on boards in the S&P 500, where female directors account for 18 percent of the total. Companies rarely pick heads of HR to be directors, said Julie Daum, who leads the North American board practice at executive-recruiting firm Spencer Stuart in New York.
"People have been talking about it for a long time, and clearly nothing has changed," said Daum, who has recruited directors for General Electric, Amazon.com and Wal- Mart. "The question is, do women opt into those jobs or is that where people allow them to succeed because it's OK to have an HR person who is a woman?"
Facebook Inc. COO Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" is resonating with women precisely because not enough women are taking the risk and getting to operational jobs, said Jane Stevenson, who leads the global succession practice at recruiter Korn/Ferry International.
"Generally speaking, when a man gets into a new job, he's already thinking about the next job and what he needs to get the next job," said Stevenson, who is co-author of the book "Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation that Drives Sustainable Growth -- And Why Others Fail." "Women, on the other hand, when they are appointed to big jobs, are out to prove they deserve to be in the job they're already in. That presents a different way of looking for career progression."
There are signs of a thaw.
At the turn of the century, the S&P 500 had six female CEOs and the total didn't top 10 until 2006, according to Spencer Stuart. They reached 24 after Barbara Rentler's promotion at discounter Ross Stores in June. And 11 of those CEOs took their jobs since 2012.
There are also two notable counter-examples to the traditional career path: PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was CFO before taking the top job, as was Lynn Good at Duke Energy. They are among the 6 percent of S&P 500 CEOs -- men and women -- who had a non-operational job immediately before their access to the top, according to data from Equilar.
Still, role models stay rare for women motivated to succeed, said Veronica Biggins, managing director at Diversified Search in Philadelphia and a director at Southwest Airlines.
"Only recently have women been able to see other women in roles where they could say, 'Wow, I could be the CEO of this company,' " Biggins said. "It hasn't been that long where you could see that."