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Women make 2013 gains, but glass ceiling still there

NEW YORK -- In two high-profile firsts, women were named to lead General Motors and the U.S. Federal Reserve this year — posts that had always been held by men. Yet women are still rarely found at the top.

In addition to Mary Barra at GM and Janet Yellen at the Fed, 2013 also saw Marillyn Hewson chosen to take charge of Lockheed Martin.

In Europe, Inga Beal was named to head British insurance firm Lloyd's and Daniele Nouy was picked to lead the eurozone banking supervisor.

“We finally have role models,” cheered Tami Polmanteer, director of human resources for the Daymon marketing group.

Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper said “each time a woman gets a position like this, it is a victory because there are so few of them.”

But a similar wave of high-profile nominations a decade ago failed to trigger major changes.

Cooper contributed to Facebook top exec Sheryl Sandberg's bestseller “Lean In,” which encouraged women to take on more responsibility in business.

Today, more women graduate with four-year college degrees than men. Women hold around half of the mid-level management positions in big companies.

But the presence of women in top-level management tapers sharply: women hold just 15 percent of the top posts.

And the numbers drop even further in the biggest companies.

Just 4.5 percent of the bosses in Fortune 1000 companies are women, including Meg Whitman at the head of Hewlett-Packard, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Ellen Kullman at DuPont, according to Catalyst consultants.

“We would have to see a lot of women” named CEO, before “it even changes the percentage,” said Columbia University professor Katherine Phillips.

That said, over the past two decades, the numbers are improving, if slowly.

In 1995, not one of the Fortune 1000 companies was run by a woman, and just two percent were in 2005, according to Phillips.

Worldwide, women hold 11 percent of board seats, according to GMI Ratings.

But some countries are doing far better than others. In Finland, Norway and Sweden, where the governments have created parity quotas, women hold 30 percent of board positions.

“Italy and France are seeing significant increases in women's representation following the passage of recent laws on board diversity,” GMI Ratings said.

But outside Europe, progress is slow, especially in the United States and Canada.

And the developed country with the worst record of women in the top levels of business is Japan, where just one percent of board member positions are held by women.

Certain sectors are particularly behind in promoting women, including finance and the sciences, where the number of women in top positions is actually decreasing.

Experts trace the difficulties in increasing parity to a lack of support from management, insufficient childcare, distrust in abilities and a stubborn cultural bias against women.

“Women are being judged more harshly,” said Marianne Cooper, referring to a study by consulting firm McKinsey.

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General Motors Senior Vice President Mary Barra, left, and President of North America Mark Reuss clap after the Cadillac ATS is named North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan 14. (AP)

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