Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Women lose power near the top

December 14, 2011: 6:43 AM ET

Women are losing power in corporate America.

Besides the news that struggling Avon (AVP) is looking to replace Andrea Jung as CEO, there is Catalyst's annual census, released this morning, showing that women hold 14.1% of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies today, vs. 15.6% five years ago.

The trend isn't a good one, especially if you consider that companies with more women at the top tend to perform better financially, according to Catalyst research.

At least corporations are adding women in the boardroom. Fortune 500 boards today are 16.1% female, vs. 14.6% in 2006, Catalyst reports. (Of all Fortune 500 companies, Avon has the highest percentage of women directors, 50%.)

An increasing number of companies have at least three women on their boards--as new CEOs such as Ginny Rometty at IBM (IBM) and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) inject the top ranks with bona fide female power.

Meanwhile, who are the guys who don't get it? They would be the directors of Avaya, Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), Caesars Entertainment, Chrysler, Dollar General (DG), First Data and 50 other companies that do not, according to Catalyst, have a single woman on their boards.

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Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
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Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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