Firms That Mean It Adopt Aggressive Programs to Level the Old Boys' Network

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Financial services firms offering generous 401(k) and group health plans may still fall short of satisfying the newest crop of female MBAs, new research suggests.

Today's most progressive financial institutions - including the likes of Deloitte, the Royal Bank of Canada, KPMG, and ING U.S. Financial Services - are redefining the shape of corporate benefits by offering mentoring and leadership programs meant to level the playing field between male and female professionals. That's according to Catalyst, a non-profit that advises businesses on promoting women.

This year, Catalyst honored Deloitte, RBC, Campbell Soup Company, and Telstra Corporation as having some of the best practices promoting diversity and advancement of women to leadership roles.

Unfortunately, other companies haven't kept pace, says Christine Silva, a Catalyst research director based in Toronto. Silva pooh-poohs the idea that by now women must have gained equality in the office and boardroom, and suggests women take steps to learn what their current and would-be employers are doing to create a more female-friendly workplace.

Starting from their first position post-business school, women lag behind men in both job level and salary, and don't catch up, Catalyst said recently, basing its findings on an online survey of 4,143 respondents who completed full-time MBA programs from 26 leading business schools in Asia, Canada, Europe and the U.S. All were working full-time when the survey was conducted in 2007 and 2008.

Regardless of such factors as experience, industry and location, women:

1. Start at lower levels than men

2. Make on average $4,600 less in their initial jobs

3. Continue to be outpaced by men in both rank and salary growth later on.

Catalyst's findings follow reports from corporate governance researcher the Corporate Library showing that female CEOs took a bigger hit to compensation than males did during the recent stock market crisis. Total realized compensation for female CEOs declined by a median of 18.5 percent between 2007 and 2008, compared to only 6.1 percent for male CEOs.

The most critical problem seems to involve hiring, says Xerox Chair Anne M. Mulcahy, a member of Catalyst's advisory board: "Most companies' systems are designed to be all about equity among a like group of jobs and roles, it's not looking for inequity in terms of initial position. This is a heads up that more work has to be done to make sure there isn't inherent bias in the placement processes."

That's why female career professionals and job hunters would be wise to learn whether current and would-be employers offer any mentoring, networking, or talent management programs to help women advance, Silva says.

And, just as employers shouldn't take for granted that young women will one day leave the company to raise a family, Silva recommends women make clear when their goal is to stick around for the long haul.

Finally, if you want to minimize the risk of gender bias at a current or prospective employer, look for organizations that have promoted women to the highest levels in the company. If a move overseas is not out of the question, consider that in India, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Fidelity International are all run by women, according to the Association of Executive Search Consultants.

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