Search firms can help break glass ceiling Women differ about industry's record for recruiting them.


Gail Lufkin Sphar, 46, is senior vice president of administration and corporate affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Missouri in St. Louis.

Ms. Sphar is in charge of human resources, work management, quality improvement, building services, corporate communication, advertising and legislative relations. She earns in the six figures.

In addition to 22 years of experience, Ms. Sphar has the credentials for her high-ranking post in the health-care industry: a master's degree in molecular biology and a master's in business administration.

Ms. Sphar was recommended for her job by an executive-search firm, and she's not the only female candidate sought after and placed by headhunters in top jobs.

Other women with powerful jobs who were recruited recently by executive search firms include Nora Hughes, president of Sumitomo Bank Securities, New York; Kathleen B. Cooper, chief economist at Exxon Corp., Houston; and Robba Benjamin, president of US West-Direct, Denver.

"There's no question that the glass ceiling exists," says Ms. Sphar. "But . . . it is not the fault of search firms. They are sensitive to offering a variety of candidates in terms of gender, race and ethnic background."

According to Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, in 1990 only 6.6 percent of top U.S. executives were female. Despite Ms. Sphar's defense of executive-search firms, they were singled out by Ms. Martin as one of the reasons women stay at lower management levels more than men do.

But some search firms say they are doing their best to help qualified women break into senior ranks.

"The glass ceiling hasn't been taken away, but we have been able to crack it," says Caroline W. Nahas, managing vice president and partner of Korn/Ferry International.

"Based on our internal facts, there's been a tripling of female placements -- a significant increase -- at the highest levels in the past decade," says Ms. Nahas.

"Companies expect a diverse offering of candidates," says Ms. Nahas.

A Korn/Ferry study shows that in 1981, 5 percent of its senior-level placements were women; in 1991 they were 16 percent. In 1981 none of the women was placed in a job higher than vice president; last year, 21 percent were named senior vice president and above at major companies. Half won the highest rank, chief executive.

Ms. Nahas' search firm places an average of 1,000 executives annually, and she estimates it has placed 700 women in the past decade.

The average salary for women placed by Korn/Ferry today is $106,000; for men, it's $146,000.

"There's a pay gap there, and women still are catching up in terms of base salary," Ms. Nahas says."Though we placed women executives in consumer-products firms, financial services and manufacturing, a higher percentage were in health-care and non-profit organizations, and they are lower-paying industries in general."

Ms. Nahas says she feels "positive" about her firm's statistics. "It's not perfection, but women should take encouragement . . . and continue to strive for greater levels of responsibility."

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