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Women take incremental step to the top

A survey of executive and high-earning corporate women being published today shows percentage gains so small as to seem inconsequential, but for one thing: They were achieved during a recession, when many businesses were cutting back.

That context suggests that economic hard times no longer wipe out senior women's advances, as downturns did in the past, said Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, which carried out the study done every other year.

"There is an accepted belief, even among informed people, that in bad times, women are negatively affected," Wellington said. "They're late to the game and always considered marginal anyway, so why not lay them off?"

In this recession, she said, "That has not happened."

Catalyst found that women this year comprise 15.7 percent of corporate officers of companies listed by Fortune magazine as America's 500 largest. That was up from 12.5 percent in 2000.

There is no universal definition of a corporate officer, but Catalyst looked for executives who have day-to-day responsibility for operations, who have the power to obligate their companies legally, and who are considered insiders in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Using those criteria, Catalyst identified 13,673 corporate officers in the Fortune 500, with 2,140 being women.

Catalyst also looked at pay and found that women make up 5.2 percent of the highest earners. In 2000, they were 4.1 percent.

The survey reinforced some stereotypes and dispelled others. Women fared poorly in such sectors as oil, mining, engineering and heavy equipment _ except at Williams Cos., an energy company where 28 percent of the officers are women. Women generally did well, by contrast, in apparel and retailing, yet Levi Strauss & Co. had no women officers.

The companies with the greatest percentages of female officers were Avon Products, with 44 percent, and the Gap, with 41 percent.

Before the 1990s, employment and income data generally showed that downturns hit women harder than men, Wellington said. But during the most recent recession, in 1991, there were the first indications that women were holding their own.

The unemployment rate for women was lower than the rate for men, for example. And while annual income data showed women's pay losing ground to men's, weekly data suggested that the gender-based income gap was narrowing.

"There was a lot of talk at the time of "Is this a trend, or is this a blip?' " Wellington recalled. She said the new study seemed to strengthen the case that executive women's gains were enduring. The survey made no attempt to examine women in lower-level jobs.

By limiting the survey to corporate officers, Catalyst is able to get data on all large, publicly traded companies. Catalyst begins its research with written requests for information and phone calls. For the companies that fail to respond, Catalyst takes information from SEC filings.

These documents provide extensive information on the identities and compensation of executives. But they do not disclose racial information, or explain which officer positions are line and which are staff positions.

The distinction is important. People in line positions generally have the kind of profit-and-loss responsibility that chief executives say is the single most important factor in an executive's rise. Staff positions, in fields like human resources, finance and legal services, generally support line jobs.

In the current survey, Catalyst found that men continued to dominate the line officer positions. Women held just 9.9 percent of these jobs, an increase from 7.9 percent in 2000.

As for race, Catalyst was able to provide information on just 429 of the 500 largest companies, because the other 71 did not provide it. The incomplete data showed that nonwhite women have an exceptionally hard time climbing the corporate ladder.

Nonwhite women accounted for only 1.6 percent of the corporate officers at participating companies, compared with 1.3 percent two years ago.