A simple analysis of the top wage earners in the plastics industry mirrors a larger trend in American business: an unmistakable lack of women.
Of the 100 executives listed in this year's Plastics News ranking of the highest paid executives at publicly traded plastics processors, only five women crack the top 100 and none are in the top 10. Or the top 20. Or the top 30.
That shows some improvement over 10 years ago, when only one woman ranked in the top 50 (at No. 43), and only two others were noted in the entire ranking: at Nos. 53 and 135.
The first woman to show up on this year's list is Tredegar Corp. President and CEO Nancy Taylor, at No. 32, directly followed by G. Penny McIntyre, former president of Newell Rubbermaid Inc.'s consumer group. McIntyre left that position and the company Nov. 1.
No. 62, former Spartech Corp. CEO Victoria Holt, made $1.42 million in 2012, but Holt still stands to make another $5 million — including $3.2 million in cash — for her golden parachute package, approved by stockholders after PolyOne Corp. acquired Spartech on March 13. Before Holt became Spartech CEO in September 2010, she had held vice president posts at PPG Industries Inc. and Solutia Inc.
Four more women executives rank No. 129 or lower in Plastics News' larger, online compensation chart, which ranks a total of 150 executives.
However, it's not surprising — the lack of female representation in the corner office, or the office next to the corner office — because that's the way it is in America.
Jennifer Owens is editorial director for Working Mother magazine and gets paid to closely follow issues involving women in the workplace.
“It's very anemic when it comes to CEOs and corporate executives across the Fortune 500,” said Owens.
Women hold about 4.2 percent of the CEO jobs in the Fortune 500 and 4.6 percent in the Fortune 1000, according to Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit group that supports opportunities for women and business.
Working Mother has its own research arm and even owns the National Association for Female Executives, which calls itself one of the largest women's professional associations in the U.S.
Sponsorship, Owens said, is a step beyond mentorship and will be a key in opening the door for more females to lead companies.
While being a mentor might involve giving some advice about how to handle a particular project or situation, sponsorship involves a higher-ranking employee publicly taking responsibility for another person's advancement in a company.
“Big companies are trying to bottle that and formalize it in a sense because women tend not to have those higher-level networks as well as men do,” Owens said. “It's publicly pulling someone along, getting them in the right meetings and putting forth their name when opportunities exist.”
The number of companies offering sponsor programs is increasing every year, she said, but there is much work to be done when it comes to female representation at the top.
“It's not just the plastics industry where you're seeing a dearth of female CEOs,” said Aaron Boyd, director of governance research for Equilar Inc., an executive compensation data firm that compiles the Plastics News ranking. “I'd say the plastics industry is pretty typical of what you're seeing in the broader marketplace.”
Long-held attitudes, by both men and women, certainly play a role in a woman's opportunity to climb the corporate ladder, Owens said. “There's a general thought in the world that men get promoted based on their potential and women get promoted based on their performance. So if they have already done that job, they are more apt to be considered for a similar job.”
Women, Owens said, also tend to wait until they believe they are fully qualified for a position before seeking a promotion. Men, on the other hand, will take more of a gamble and figure out what they don't know along the way.
“You're not going to gun it quite as fast as the men as a whole. But if you are aware of it, you can and you should,” she said.
Another factor keeping women out of C-level offices is that there are so few women in those positions now. “I think a big one is that with so few women at the top ranks of any company, there are few role models. It's still a common occurrence that you are making your own way. It really helps to see someone like yourself ahead of you,” Owens said.
Recent Equilar studies of both small- and mid-cap companies across industries point to the lack of female leadership. Women led only 15 of 395 small-cap companies in one study, and only 12 of 278 mid-cap companies, Equilar reported.
While there's been some movement over the years, Boyd said, “I think we certainly have a long way to go and there's still a lot that needs to be done to provide more opportunities.”
Societal pressures and traditional gender roles also play a big part in deciding who gets the plum job or even who is still in the running for consideration.
Women, as a whole, as they advance in their careers have personal responsibilities such as elder care and child care outside of work that can sidetrack career ambitions.
With females making up half of the population, Owens figures job-place equality will come when they hold half of the leadership positions.
But she's not under any delusions that is going to happen any time soon and instead hopes for incremental progress over time. Thirty percent is a good short-term goal, she said.
NAFE publishes a list of the top 50 companies for executive women, and within that list for 2013, a total of 10 percent of the firms had female CEOs. That compares with the 4 percent in the Fortune 500.
Those top companies also had women representing 25 percent of their total executive officers, up from 22 percent the previous year.
“Companies benefit from having diversity of thought. They benefit from women leaders. We're not even talking about diversity in an ethnic or racial way. But just companies are stronger if they have a diverse leadership. They just are. You are not thinking the same way. You see new opportunities,” Owens said.
Catalyst, a nonprofit group, came out with a report late last year that said women get fewer opportunities to handle what it calls “hot jobs,” or assignments that can lead to advancement at global companies. These so-called hot jobs include high-visibility, mission-critical and international experiences.
“Access to the ‘hot jobs,' and to senior-level sponsors with clout to create that access, can make a dramatic difference in closing the persistent gender gap,” Catalyst President and CEO Ilene Lang, said in the report's summary.
The solution? Give what Catalyst calls high-potential women more critical assignments to help them move into the leadership pipeline, the nonprofit said.
“It's tough because companies make the argument about needing experience. And it's one of those Catch-22s,” Boyd said. “Oftentimes, it can be difficult for females to break through.”
The ranking of the highest paid executives at publicly trade plastics processors is in the Sept. 9 issue of Plastics News.