Why Aren't More CEOs Women?
Many companies still think women aren't serious about reaching the top. No wonder they don't retain talent. A conversation with management expert Sheila Wellington.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE WORLD SURE HAS CHANGED SINCE Sheila Wellington, a newly minted Radcliffe grad, got her first job 50 years ago. Before he would hire her, the interviewer insisted that she sign a note promising that she wouldn't get pregnant for at least two years. Now a professor of management at New York University's Stern School of Business, Wellington teaches a course, immensely popular with both male and female MBA students, called Women in Business Leadership. From 1993 to 2003, as president of Catalyst, a nonprofit research group, Wellington was an articulate advocate for women in high places. We recently sat down for a chat about how women are faring in corporate America now. Some excerpts from our conversation:

The phrase "powerful women" is no longer an oxymoron. But why are there still so few female CEOs of big companies or even women at the senior-officer level?

I think we are in the midst of a cycle right now where there is a widespread perception that women aren't fully committed to their careers. It tends to happen every time the spotlight is on a high-ranking woman who flames out, like [former Hewlett-Packard CEO] Carly Fiorina. You start hearing all kinds of people analyzing "what women are doing wrong." But in my opinion it's time to shift the focus of the discussion to what companies can do better. Here is this incredibly well-educated, talented population of women. Why is so much of that talent underutilized?

What do you think companies should be doing?

For one thing, turnover among women is quite startling in many companies, but if you press managers for an explanation, they lapse into platitudes like "Women are risk-averse" or "Women won't travel." Nonsense. Fond as corporations are of measuring everything they do, very few take the trouble to gather and scrutinize any data on where in their organizations talented women are quitting, why, and what it would have taken to keep them. What I hear from many female managers is that they leave because they're tired of being passed over for promotions they've earned, tired of being excluded from overseas assignments, and so on. Yet so many employers just don't seem to see it.

What's your reaction, then, to Neil French, who resigned as WPP Group worldwide creative director last month after saying women in advertising "don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to"?

He spoke aloud what all too many men in leadership positions believe but don't articulate. They think "with the family responsibilities she's got, maybe we shouldn't ask her to take on certain key opportunities, clients, and assignments." They act on those unspoken biases, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What advice do you have for young women who aspire to make our list of the Most Powerful Women in Business someday?

It's essential to learn how to negotiate. I teach a class in it. Lots of people aren't comfortable negotiating, so I have them practice, practice, practice. Then, my advice is to develop a career plan. Find a mentor, male or female, who is where you'd like to be in five or ten years, and learn from that person. Your plan should include all aspects of your career and life. How much time do you want to devote to family and friends? What motivates you? Are you a leader or more of a team player? You can throw out your plan and make a new one every six months. The point is to articulate your goals, so you have a point of reference.

How do you think your female MBA students differ from yourself at the same age?

I've noticed many of them are athletes. That's interesting, since I've known so many [male] CEOs who are former football players. What you learn from sports is that you win some, you lose some, and there's always another game tomorrow or next week. That's a valuable mindset, because it gives you resilience. I wish I'd had it when I was young. I took every little setback too much to heart and wasted a lot of stomach acid.

Gloria Steinem once remarked that we'll know women have reached full equality when a mediocre woman can get as far as a mediocre man. Are we there yet?

We're still a long way from there. But women can avoid the trap of having to be better than their male colleagues in order to reach the same heights. I advise my students to think carefully before they join any organization--to avoid leaping at the first job offer they get. Figure out whether that company is likely to help you reach your goals, as well as vice versa. Of course, you can go to work in a male-dominated industry or at a company with few or no high-ranking women, but you must go in with your eyes open and be prepared to tough it out. Be aware that, even today, you may be a pioneer. And the way you can always tell a pioneer is, she's the one with the arrows sticking out of her back.

Send questions to askannie@fortunemail.com. Annie offers advice weekly at www.askannie.com.