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Not-so-good year for female CEOs

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This is going to go down as a miserable year for female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Granted, women run fewer than 2% of Fortune 500 companies, which makes any analysis little more than a curiosity. And although this is the second consecutive year that women-led companies have trailed the market, female CEOs did very well for their shareholders in 2003, when their stocks on average outpaced the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index.

But that was then, this is now, and 2005 can't end soon enough for women who are at the helms of large companies. Consider:

*Their numbers are dwindling. The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies fell to seven from nine.

Sara Lee named as CEO Brenda Barnes, who heartened stay-at-home moms by rekindling her career to rise to the top of a food giant with $19 billion in revenue.

But three other women are gone, the most prominent being Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, which had been the largest company ever run by a woman. Also gone: Pathmark Stores CEO Eileen Scott, and Marce Fuller of energy firm Mirant.

*Their stock performance has been dismal. The year was even worse than 2004, when women-led companies lagged behind the S&P 500 by 6 percentage points. This year, the lag is 12 percentage points. The S&P is up 4.2%. Down are Sara Lee (22%), Patricia Russo's Lucent (25%), Andrea Jung's Avon Products (25%), Anne Mulcahy's Xerox (12%) and Mary Sammons' Rite Aid (3%). EBay, an S&P 500 company approaching Fortune 500-size revenue, is down 24% this year under CEO Meg Whitman.

Marion O. Sandler's Golden West Financial is again beating the S&P, up 10%, while Reynolds American, parent of tobacco company RJR, is up 21% under CEO Susan Ivey. Reynolds American also has women as chief operating officer and chief financial officer. On average, the seven stocks are down 8.0%.

*Their former stocks are flourishing under male replacements. Three Fortune 500 companies where men replaced women have done nicely (story, right).

Proponents for the advancement of women pooh-pooh drawing any conclusions. Betty Spence, president of the National Association For Female Executives, says it's no different than a stretch when the majority of baseball managers were fired within three years after being named American League Manager of the Year. "The only thing they had in common was that they're men," Spence says. "The only logical conclusion is that men don't make good baseball managers."

But even if the numbers are statistically meaningless, Spence acknowledges that another year or two like 2004 and 2005 could feed perceptions and biases, and impede women's progress to the top. "The level of scrutiny -- or skirtiny -- goes up," she says.

"It's very damaging to women," says Judy Rosener of the University of California-Irvine Graduate School of Management, adding that it is unfair to compare the performance of the seven women against the S&P 500. "You could pick out 30 men from that list who have the same story. Look at General Motors and Ford."

Rosener, who is writing a book about how men's and women's leadership styles are influenced by hormones and brain chemistry, says there is already a drain at large corporations as women get fed up and leave to start their own firms. The Women's Leadership Exchange says women own 10.6 million businesses, only 279,000 of which gross more than $1 million a year.

Six of the seven female Fortune 500 CEOs declined comment. Sandler agrees that the sample size is too small, but she has warned in the past that other women were setting themselves up for failure by taking CEO jobs at struggling, debt-ridden companies that men avoid.

"The numbers are the numbers," says Sandler, co-CEO of the bank since 1963. "It's an oxymoron, but the opportunities presented them are loser opportunities."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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