Seven years ago when we initiated the Most Influential Women in Business awards, it was a challenge to identify 25 outstanding female corporate leaders in St. Louis. I can remember members of the selection committee worrying aloud that we wouldn't find another 25 of equal merit the following year and certainly not the year after that.
Sometimes it's great to be wrong.
This year's 26 Most Influential Women in Business, including one representative of the non-profit sector - Sue Stepleton of Parents as Teachers - were chosen from nearly 300 nominees, many of whom had impressive credentials. With so many qualified candidates, the selection process begs the question of whether the awards are still meaningful. Have we reached the time and place that the abundance of stellar women means their accomplishments should be taken for granted? After all, we don't give awards for the Most Influential Men in Business.
Sadly, in some ways, the award is more important than ever.
No less a bastion of business as we know it than the Wall Street Journal reported just last week "the growth rate for the advancement of women in corporate America has actually slowed in recent years."
Citing research by Catalyst, an organization that tracks and promotes women in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal reported women hold 9.4% of so-called "clout" titles higher than vice president. "At the current rate of 'progress,' Catalyst concluded it will take another 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in the officer-level ranks," according to the national newspaper.
Moses led the Israelites out of the desert in that amount of time yet women are still wandering corporate corridors looking for the corner office.
The most recent case in point in the public company arena was Pfizer's decision to name Jeffrey Kindler as CEO rather than Karen Katen, vice chairman of the company who oversees operations with revenue of more than $43 billion. The Wall Street Journal commentary titled "Cherchez la Femme," by Judith Dobrzynski, calls the handful of women who share Ms. Katen's fate, "CEOs-in-Waiting."
Of course they're all at big public companies. In St. Louis, Chief Executive Bear Maxine Clark of Build-a-Bear started her own company following a successful merchandising career at May Co. that took her to the top spot at Payless Shoes. There are many other women like Diana Tickner at Peabody who are in the executive suite. Still others like Brenda Newberry are at the top spot in smaller, private companies. Some, like Christine Duffy, run huge organizations that are part of even bigger businesses.
Women are making progress, to be sure. They make up more than a third of those who graduated with MBAs this year. Like Jan Alonzo who is chief legal counsel at United Van Lines, they're broadening their professional base and moving to the corporate world with experience as well as ambition.
Yet we still seemed surprised to see them in such powerful posts.
It's time to lose that element of surprise. Karen Katen sits on impressive corporate boards, including GM and Harris Corp. We submit there are many qualified women in this week's section of Most Influential Women in Businesss who could sit on the boards of local public companies. We shouldn't have to wait 40 years for them to make a mark on St. Louis.