By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Although women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, only 16.6 percent have seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies and the number has barely budged since 2005, according to a study released on Tuesday.
The Catalyst 2012 F500 Census, which annually tracks women in top positions in companies, showed progress is painfully slow for women seeking the top spots in corporate America, with only a 0.5 percent rise from the previous year.
"What we found is that the needle barely budged for women aspiring into corporate board service or into top-level leadership at these very prominent American companies," said Rachel Soares, a senior research associate at Catalyst, a non-profit group.
"In 2012 women held only 16.6 percent of board seats and only 14.3 percent of executive officer positions."
The number of women executives last year was slightly lower than in 2010 and only marginally better than in 2011. During the past two years more than a quarter of U.S. companies had no women executive officers, according to the research, and just one-fifth had 25 percent or more.
SNAIL'S PACE OF IMPROVEMENT
Women's advancement into boardrooms and executive offices has been slow since Catalyst, which works to expand opportunities for women and businesses, started with the F500 Census in 1993. In 2005 it slowed to a snail's pace, with half or less than half of a percentage point gain each year.
"It is not meaningful. It is not significant," Soares said of the lack of progress in closing the gender leadership gap.
For women of color, the situation is even worse, with 3.3 percent holding board seats in 2012, up 0.3 percent from 2011.
"It just underscores the challenges that women face, particularly at the intersection of different dimensions of diversity, in this case gender and race/ethnicity," said Soares.
In 2011 and 2012 two-thirds of companies did not have any women of color serving on their boards.
Catalyst compiled the results by studying the top 500 U.S. companies ranked by revenues by Fortune magazine and counting everyone on boards and in top executive positions, noting their gender and race/ethnicity. Three companies were excluded because data was not available.
Although many barriers block women's entry to boardrooms and executive offices, Catalyst research showed that sponsorship is critical to advancing women, as is the commitment of current leadership.
"Our data shows that between 2009 and 2011, 81 percent of (board) seats that were filled went to men. The pool that companies were drawing from is not taking advantage of the full range of women with their skills that are available," Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer of Catalyst, said in an interview.
To pry open the door further and break through the relationship barrier, Catalyst is compiling a directory of board-qualified women based on recommendations from sponsors and companies.
"What we are saying with this list is that the under-representation of women on corporate boards is not about a lack of supply. That's a myth," said Gillis.
"In fact, if we look at the executive officer pool, we see 710 women executive officers in Fortune 500 companies. It is an extensive pool of women with skills and experience in critical areas that corporate boards could tap into."
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Christine Kearney and Dan Grebler)