Corporate boardrooms and most upper-level executive positions have long been a boys club, and in large part they still are. Women have made up only a few percentage points worth of CEOs in the nation's largest companies and, although that is still true, the trend appears to be going the way of the woman.

A new report highlights the fact that of all the Fortune 500 companies, there are now 20 female CEOs heading up these companies. That's an "impressive" 4%. Seem a little low? Maybe, but Forbes points out that not only is it a record number of women heading up these companies, 11 of the 20 were appointed in 2011 and 2012. Is this a trend that is likely to continue?

The Notables
IBM, broke its 100-year tradition of male CEOs when it hired Ginni Rometty as its CEO. Rometty started at IBM in 1981, and was appointed to a series of leadership positions while working her way up through the ranks of IBM. In 2012, she was named Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer.

In 2012, Yahoo! chose Marissa Mayer for its top spot. Mayer came to Yahoo! from Google where she was employee #20 and the company's most prominent female executive. Since her hiring, investors have supported Mayer's vision for Yahoo!. The stock has seen a solid uptrend since her hiring.

Hewlett Packard hired Meg Whitman just over a year ago. Whitman was named HP's CEO in September 2011. Prior to that she served as the CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008, and held executive level positions with Hasbro Inc., FTD Inc. and The Walt Disney Company.

Why Now?
Ask board members (most of them male, by the way) and they will tell you that they hired the best person for the job regardless of gender. JPMorgan Chase CEO, James Dimon, when asked about the hiring of newlyappointed female chief financial officer Marianne Lake, said that gender "wasn't a consideration at all - we were simply looking for the best person for the job."

One study found that female executives were good for business. A study by Dow Jones found that startups with five or more females in executive positions only failed 39% of the time, as opposed to an average of 75% for the typical startup. The report also found that the fewer females that were represented, the more likely the startup was to fail.

In another study, Catalyst, a nonprofit advocating for more women in business, found that from 2004 to 2008, Fortune 500 companies with the largest percentage of female board directors outperformed those with the least by 16% when measured by return on sales and 26% when measured by return on invested capital.

Will the Trend Continue?
This year, the EU proposed a law aiming for the goal that 40% of non-executive directors on corporate boards at public European companies be female.

Although in the United States this issue has taken a back seat to other matters, such as the fiscal cliff, it will most likely be revisited once the economy rebounds. In the wake of a report showing women make only 78 cents for every one dollar made by a man, it's likely that women's equality in the workplace will be a top issue in years to come, especially when considering the attention it received on the presidential campaign trail.

The Bottom Line
2012 was a giant leap forward for women in the workplace, as large companies hired a record number of female CEOs. While those championing gender equality have cause for celebration, many argue that the work is far from over. Women are still underrepresented in boardrooms and underpaid in most sectors of the workforce. That, according to activists, must change.

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