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The number of female CEOs at top-tier companies is declining

Among the publicly traded companies included in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index, only 4.8 percent of the leaders are women -- and that percentage is going down. Part of that is because the overall number is quite small. There are now only 24 female chief executives in the index.

Indra Nooyi announced her departure as CEO of PepsiCo on Monday. Earlier, Denise M. Morrison, head of Campbell Soup and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez International both stepped down. Meanwhile, only one new female CEO has been appointed: Kathy Warden of Northrup Grumman.

As a recent article in the New York Times points out, these facts should prompt some soul searching about the corporate glass ceiling. For example why, at companies where the glass ceiling was supposedly shattered by a female CEO, is her replacement almost never another woman?

A woman chief executive has replaced another woman only three times at a publicly traded company in the U.S., according to a nonprofit consulting and research firm called Catalyst. That happened at Xerox, Avon and Reynolds American.

What could explain the dwindling of women at the top?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that women receive equal consideration in recruitment, interviewing, promotions and hiring -- even at the level of chief executive. Women are graduating college at a higher rate than men, and women have been working their way up corporate ladders across the country for decades. So why are there so few female CEOs at top-tier companies?

According to the Times, one reason is that women are not moving up the corporate ladder at a rate commensurate with their percentage of the working population. Many female executives are still denied the same opportunities, as demonstrated by there being fewer women in upper management who could qualify for chief executive.

There is also the continuing gender pay gap, which depresses the pay of female executives. That could lead to a sense that the executives aren't as qualified as more highly paid men in comparable positions.

The boards that appoint chief executives are also heavily male -- among the S&P 500, women make up about 21 percent of board members.

Strikingly, several female leaders confided to the Times reporter that they fear they will be accused of bias if they promote other women into positions of power.

The fact that most (79 percent) female CEOs were internal candidates highlights the importance of a diverse talent pool within each company. Moreover, high-profile talent is often poached by other companies.

The head of Catalyst points to yet one more reason: the continuing existence of a double standard.

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