Women are making marginal gains in corporate boardrooms and executive C-suites in companies around New Jersey, but advocates see more headway in changing attitudes.
A new report from Executive Women of New Jersey, the only such study to focus on corporations based in the state, lists those with the most female board members and top executives. The group looked at New Jersey public companies in the Russell 3000, an index of the largest American corporations, as well the top-end Fortune 500.
"New Jersey does slightly better than the country as a whole, and has made progress" since a previous study, said Barbara Kauffman, executive vice president of the Newark Regional Business Partnership.
Two years ago, EWNJ found that of the 111 New Jersey companies then included in the Russell index, "women had 139 board seats, 14 percent, and 33 of the companies had no female board members," said Kauffman, who chairs the committee that prepares the reports.
This time around, although just 99 in-state companies remain on the index, both the headcount, 141, and percentage, 15, are up slightly, she noted. The number of firms with no women on their boards dropped to 25.
Beyond philosophies of fairness and equal opportunity, Kauffman pointed to the bottom line. She cited studies by Credit Suisse and Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates on business and gender issues. They found companies with at least three female directors consistently "have a better return on equity, stronger growth and higher valuation," she said.
"Women on boards tend to ask more questions, especially on issues that involve risk levels, corporate responsibility," said Linda Willett, a vice president, corporate counsel, and board secretary at Horizon Blur Cross-Blue Shield of New Jersey.
But the number of female CEOs of major firms remains at four in the state and 24 in the nation. The success stories highlighted by EWNJ, companies reaching the three female-board-member threshold, has dropped from 17 to 16. This reflects significant turnover, with three companies joining while four dropped off, including Maidenform, which was purchased by North Carolina-based Hanes.
On both the Russell 3000 and Fortune 500, the percentage of high-earning women executives remained unchanged or fell over the past two years. Kauffman sees this changing as the economy looks stronger. "A lot of people are feeling free to move around … comfortable enough to make a move" to a new opportunity, she said.
"To have the CEO be the driver of diversity is critically important," said Willett, who is also part of the corporate board initiative of the Women's Forum of New York and its international counterpart.
Relying on the big boss can pose a problem if a 60-something CEO is asking for recommendations from his white male golfing partners. In particular, board members often come from the ranks of retired CEOs, and many corporations have lifted or extended age limits for their boards, Willett said.
Yet in a world of high scrutiny, public companies also respond to customer expectations, she said. More companies are recognizing the need for skills sets that go beyond corporate finance or law, according to Willett.
"Finance is still important, but so is information technology, especially in security," she said. "We're also seeing more attention to Human Resources … familiarity with the people assets of a corporation."
While the EWNJ lists its top companies alphabetically, the American Water Co. leads the way by almost any metric. That is the result of encouraging employees to add knowledge and skills rather than pigeonholing them, said Susan Story, the Voorhees-based firm's president and CEO.
"You want people who are there in these positions because they have the best background," but that should mean looking at varied backgrounds, she said.
That may require longer searches than many companies perform, but can result in finding qualified candidates who might otherwise get overlooked, she said. That carries over on the job, as "all our employees have a development plan" to provide opportunities to advance, Story said.
While executive attitudes are evolving, Story stressed the importance of advance planning, having women and minorities "in the pipeline" for future executive openings.
There is far less overt bias today than she encountered starting out as an engineer in the 1980s. But even in that "different world," Story said she found men who were helpful when she demonstrated she could do the job and when she solicited honest critiques. For her part, she looked for what she could take on to "bring value," she said.
"After a year I wasn't the 'girl engineer,' I was an engineer who happened to be a woman," Story said.
She is concerned that after a period of progress, "the number of engineering degrees awarded to women is pretty much stuck at 15-20 percent." Technical professions have become more welcoming, especially in the Northeast, but women need to pursue the opportunities.
One other puzzlement: despite American Water's success in diversifying its executive suite, other companies have not reached out to Story for advice.
"Maybe more publicity will help," she said, before giving the keynote speech at the New Brunswick breakfast where Executive Women of New Jersey unveiled its latest report.
Women hold four of its nine board seats, tied with Realogy Holdings for highest percentage and behind only Campbell Soup, where five of 16 directors are female. Seven of American Water's 16 top executives are women, tied with New Jersey Resources for number and second to Zoetis Inc. in percentage. Half of American Water's highest paid employees are women, leading the list, which EWNJ prepared in conjunction with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The medical technology company based in East Rutherford has four board members and four executives who are women, though only one among its five most highly compensated.
The Camden food giant sells products in 120 countries, and EWNJ has previously spotlighted its attentiveness to female leadership. Besides board members, two of its six top-earning employees are women, though only one is an executive.
A financial giant with headquarters in Livingston and offices in New York, CIT is a newcomer to the list. But it has previously earned plaudits from the EWNJ, which in 2006 named Barbara Callahan, currently senior vice president and head of investor relations, as one of New Jersey's leading woman policy makers. Four of CIT's 13 board members and two of its top eight executives are female.
One-third of the Short Hills company's board are women, although it has only one female executive, according to the report. About 38 percent of employees are female.
When Morristown-based Allied Signal acquired this company in 1999, it chose to go with the Honeywell name. Three board members and two executives are women.
An academic publisher based in Hoboken, Wiley has three female board members and two top executives.
Three of 13 board members, two of 13 executives, and one of five highly compensated employees are female.
The Woodbridge bank holding corporation has three women on its 12-person board.
The Newark financial giant numbers three women of 12 board members, and three women of 11 top executives.
Another newcomer to the list, the Madison-based clinical services laboratory has three women among its 11 board members, two among its 14 executives, and one among its five top earners.
A real-estate and relocation firm based in Madison, Realogy has two women among its 10 executives along with the four board members.
Three of 11 board members, two of seven executives, one of the five highest-paid employees are female at this energy-services holding company, which is based in Folsom, Atlantic County.
A newcomer to the list, the Secaucus children's apparel company does well by EWNJ measurements, with three women of eight board members, three of 13 executives, and two of the six highly paid employees. "We need the perspective of our end-customer, who in many industries is a woman," said Jane Elfers, president and CEO.
The Warren Township insurance giant has three women on its 14-member board and three women among its 17 top executives.
Four of 10 board members, three of nine executives, including two of the five top earners, are women at this North Bergen retailer of nutritional supplements.