Why are there still so few women in top leadership jobs?

January 17, 2013, 2:52 PM UTC

Even a casual glance at the news over the past twelve months suggests that women are making big strides — better educated than ever, stepping into high-profile CEO slots at companies like IBM (IBM) and Yahoo (YHOO), and, according to one much-publicized study, outnumbering men as the primary breadwinners in their households. Even so, in major U.S. companies, the percentage of women at or near the top has flat-lined.

That’s according to two new surveys of Fortune 500 companies by nonprofit research group Catalyst. On the plus side, notes Catalyst chief Ilene Lang, men-only Senate hearings and other highly visible events in 2012 meant that “so many people started asking, ‘Where are the women?’ In an increasingly diverse society, people are getting less comfortable with seeing these groups of the powerful who are all white males.”

It may take a while for that discomfort to translate into change. For now, Catalyst’s research shows, women’s share of corporate board seats, at 16.6%, hasn’t grown at all since 2004. The percentage of female executive officers at Fortune 500 companies is even smaller — 14.3% — and has remained flat for three straight years.

MORE: The 50 Most Powerful Women in Business

Why is that? When it comes to senior executive jobs, a third Catalyst project provides some clues. Entitled Good Intentions, Imperfect Execution? Women Get Fewer of the Hot Jobs Needed to Advance, the report is part of a series that examines the careers of 4,000 high-potential MBAs of both sexes and compares men’s advancement with the career trajectories of their female counterparts.

That subtitle is a mouthful. It turns out that men more often get the kind of “high-profile assignments, mission-critical roles, and international experiences” that typically lead to the C-suite and above. One time-tested path to those hot jobs is finding a sponsor, an influential higher-up who paves the way.

Another approach that may work: Jump to a different company. “Being visible and making your accomplishments known is essential to getting the kinds of experience that can move you up into senior management, but some corporate cultures penalize women for that,” Lang observes. “It’s seen as ‘not ladylike’ or ‘too pushy.’ So, to get the right opportunities, you have to be in the right culture. Find a division, or a company, where there are already some senior women, and where you’ll be allowed to flourish.”

As for corporate board seats, Lang pooh-poohs the widespread notion that there just aren’t enough qualified female candidates. “The ‘supply problem’ is a myth,” she says. “But there are more qualified people than there are openings on boards, so it’s very competitive. You need a champion, someone who is already ‘in the club’ and will vouch for you.”

To connect board-ready female executives with companies looking for directors, Catalyst last month launched a service called Corporate Board Resource, a clearinghouse where CEOs of Catalyst member companies — the gatekeepers of “the club” — endorse women whose experience qualifies them for board seats. “Having the imprimatur of a CEO is tremendously powerful,” Lang says. “It gets you noticed in places where you otherwise wouldn’t be.”

MORE: Why the U.S. lags Europe (and others) on board diversity

Another talent pool where board recruiting committees might cast a line: The Committee of 200, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that now numbers more than 400 high-powered women in 100 different industries worldwide. Jan Babiak, a former Ernst & Young executive, is a Committee of 200 member who sits on three corporate boards.

“You have to treat [pursuing a board seat] like a job hunt, only with a revised resume that reflects what boards are looking for,” Babiak advises. “Reach out to your network and let people know you’re looking.”

Babiak has given referrals to other women, which helped seven of them land directorships in the past year. “Women have to support each other,” she says. “Other women helped me tremendously in getting my board seats, so now I’m paying it forward.” That kind of networking, which men have been doing forever, could be what finally budges the number of female directors off its current plateau.