How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Is Sheryl Sandberg's "stagnation" claim true?

March 12, 2013: 3:32 PM ET

Sheryl Sandberg's evangelism—take risks! go for the big job! Lean In, sister!—hinges on her claim that women aren't moving up in corporate America. Is the Facebook COO-cum-feminist champion right that we are in a state of stagnation?

"There's stagnation at the very top," Sheryl Sandberg told an audience last evening at the Time Warner (TWX) Center in New York.

Here and at just about every stop on her marketing blitz for Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, the ever-aspiring Facebook (FB) COO notes that women have constituted about 14% of top corporate jobs for the past decade.

This is true, according to Catalyst, the research firm that tracks women. But last evening, I had to speak up and remind Sandberg and her high-powered audience (including Gayle King, Lesley Stahl, A&E Network boss Abbe Raven, actress Katie Holmes and a few good men) that at the very top--the CEO level, that is--we have seen real movement.

In 1998, when Fortune started ranking Most Powerful Women, there was one woman solely in charge of a Fortune 500 company: Jill Barad, the CEO of Mattel (MAT). The Fortune 500 had one other woman chief executive back then, but she shared the top role with her husband: co-CEO Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial, which was later acquired by Bank of America (BAC).

Today, 21 Fortune 500 companies have women in charge. The list includes America's two largest tech companies, IBM (IBM) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and two of its biggest defense companies, Lockheed Martin (LMT) and General Dynamics (GD).

And this Catalyst chart shows the march of women into the CEO suite over the past decade: from 1.4% of Fortune 500 companies in 2003 to 4.2% today.

"Pathetic" is the word I used last evening to describe that 4.2%. But as I said to Sandberg, a decade ago we didn't have role models for young women like Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer and Sheryl herself--whom I wrote about on Postcards yesterday, comparing Silicon Valley's two most powerful women and their distinctive paths to success.

Here's a video clip of Sandberg last evening, in conversation with TIME Deputy Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

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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