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Few women in executive ranks in California, UC Davis survey finds

December 2, 2010 | 12:17 pm

Hot Topic has a female CEO

Women hold fewer than 10% of all top executive and board of directors positions within California’s 400 largest companies, according to a study released by UC Davis. Though several L.A. companies made the top 25 list of firms with the most women executives, the low female representation statewide is somewhat surprising for California, often viewed as a progressive trend setter.

Southern California companies with the most female executives include Hot Topic Inc. of Industry, LTC Properties Inc. of Westlake Village, Electro Rent Corp. of Van Nuys, Health Net Inc. of Woodland Hills, Nara Bancorp Inc. of Los Angeles and DineEquity of Glendale. Of the 79 L.A. firms listed in the survey, women make up 12% of directors and 12.3% of the highest paid executives.

The data on the entire list of companies, featuring brands including Hewlett Packard Co. and Jack in the Box Inc., were distilled from public reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The survey shows women holding 9.5% of board seats and highest paid executive positions, which is in line with previous years. Sixteen (or 4%) of the 400 companies have a woman as chief executive, up from 15 in 2009 and 11 in 2006.

Donald Palmer, a UC Davis management professor who spearheaded the survey with co-author Amanda Kimball, said another important aspect of the findings was the similarity between the percentage of women in top management and the percentage of women elected to a company’s board of directors, which are primarily composed of the highest executives of a company.

What this suggests is that once you make it into top management, the chances of getting appointed to the board are roughly the same, whether you’re a man or a woman,” Palmer said.

“If discrimination is taking place, and I think it is, it’s likely taking place at the many lower levels in an organization.”

Palmer also noted the positive relationship between a company’s size and its percentage of female board members. However, there appears to be no relationship between size and the number of women in top management.

Palmer said that larger companies are more likely to appoint women executives to visible board positions. The percentage of female board members (10%) is slightly higher than the percentage of women in top management (8.8%).

“If a large firm is more concerned about image, they’re more likely to be worried about their boards looking balanced,” said Palmer.

The survey found that more than one-third of the 400 largest public companies in California have no women among their directors and top paid executives. Palmer noted that tech businesses in Silicon Valley had the worst record when it came to hiring women in these positions.

Palmer declined to speculate on whether the number of women executives in a company correlates to the the company's success, though researchers noted that the higher a company appeared on their list -- which ranked the firms by market capitalization -- the more female executives and board members it had. He added that a previous UC Davis survey showed that women executives appear to do well from a corporate social responsibility standpoint.

The university has conducted the study for the last six years in conjuction with Watermark -- a Bay Area nonprofit organization offering networking opportunties for current and aspiring female executives. The university expanded the numbers of companies covered to the top 400 from 200 and geared the study toward the highest paid executives to chart trends in the promotion and hiring practices of large companies.

“One of our long-term goals is to go beyond just documenting the representation of women and try to examine why the variation exists and also what the consequences of the variation are,” Palmer said.

-- Nate Jackson

Photo: A Hot Topic store in Berkeley. Credit: Bloomberg News