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

Women on boards (still not!)

December 10, 2008: 4:52 PM ET

by Jessica Shambora

No news isn't good news when it comes to counting women on Fortune 500 boards: Researchers at Catalyst, according to a study released today, have found that only 15.1% of Fortune 500 directors are female. That's only slightly better than last year's 14.8%.

Ah, but delve into this study and you find some interesting -- albeit depressing -- stuff. Can you believe that 68 companies have no women on their boards? That's right. One name in Catalyst's female-free zone: Bear Stearns, which got rescued by JPMorgan Chase (JPM) at the start of this year's market meltdown. Another is Countrywide Financial, salvaged by Bank of America (BAC). As Pattie wondered in her 2007 story, "Women on boards (Not!)," might not those companies have benefited from a little estrogen in the boardroom? Auto-parts maker Delphi has no female directors. Nor do struggling homebuilders Hovnanian Enterprises and Toll Brothers.

No women in auto-parts and construction, that's understandable. But retailers that cater to female customers? All-male boards at Dillard's (DDS) and Dollar General seem illogical. Dillard's stock is down 78% year-to-date; angry hedge fund investors are kicking at its barricades. While Dollar General had no female directors when it was a publicly held Fortune 500 company (it's now owned by KKR), four of its top nine corporate officers were women. (Stay tuned to Postcards for more on Catalyst's findings about companies with the most and least female officers.)

And which Fortune 500 boards have the most women directors? Longs Drug Stores, acquired by CVS Caremark (CVS) in August, tops Catalyst's list: four of nine, or 44.4%. Next in line: Estee Lauder (EL), Kraft Foods (KFT), Avon Products (AVP), and Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG). Well-run companies, all. But don't assume that women in the boardroom guarantee anything. Best evidence? Merrill Lynch and Fannie Mae (FNM) are high on Catalyst's list for female representation. Look what happened to them.

Correction: Turns out, Dillard's does have a female board member: Drue Corbusier. An EVP at the company, Corbusier has been on the board since 1994 and is the daughter of founder William T. Dillard. How presumptuous of Catalyst and us to assume that a "Drue" in a senior position would be a man.

This slip reminds us that in today's world, a name no longer confers gender. Still not convinced? In a recently released list of the 100 most popular baby names of 2008 from, five androgynous names appeared on both lists: Peyton, Riley, Jordan, Jayden, and Camryn/Cameron. Two more that caught our eye? Reagan and Kennedy—two of this year's most popular names for girls.

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