How do women reach the top in Fortune 250 companies? To tackle the question of female underrepresentation in corporate leadership—as of 2012, only 14 percent of executive officers at top companies were women—researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business studied the lives of 35 women who became the first female directors of top publicly traded companies. Their subjects ranged from Clara Abbott, whose husband founded Abbott Laboratories and who first served on the company’s board in 1900, to Marian Heiskell, sister of New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who was a conservationist and philanthropist as well as the first female director of both Merck and Ford Motor. Researchers David Larcker and Brian Tayan found that, compared to their historic predecessors, twice as many of today’s female board members have had prior executive experience before reaching their current positions. Comparatively, significantly more of the study’s 35 historic subjects came to corporate leadership after careers in consulting, law, and academia. The authors suggest that this change reflects “increased professional opportunities in today’s corporations,” but say that women in business still have a lot to learn from the pioneers who preceded them.
Stanford researchers learn from the lives of the first women to head Fortune 250 companies.