While still kept from the top echelons of large businesses, women are increasingly poised to take charge of small and mid-size firms, according to a survey released Wednesday.
That's largely because smaller companies are often family-owned enterprises, where all hands, regardless of gender, are needed and used, said George S. May International, a Chicago consulting firm that conducted the poll.
"In a family-owned business, everybody does something, they learn, therefore the credentials are there," said Donald J. Fletcher, president of the family-owned firm.
In addition, women are starting up small businesses in increasing numbers, researchers report.
In the survey, nearly half of 895 chief executives of small or mid-size companies polled said that it was either highly likely or somewhat likely that their next CEO would be a woman.
Thirty percent of those surveyed said it was very unlikely that their next CEO would be a woman. The margin of error of the survey was plus or minus three percentage points.
Manufacturers were the most "hard-nosed" opponents to female leaders, Fletcher said. Only 15% of manufacturing executives surveyed said it was highly likely their next CEO would be female, while 39% said they strongly oppose a woman as CEO, the survey said. No reason for their opposition was given.
In the health care field, by contrast, 43% of executives said it was highly likely that their next CEO would be a woman, and an additional 41% said it was somewhat likely.
Caren Wilcox, vice president of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners, said women are increasingly both founding businesses and taking the wheel at family-run firms.
"Previously, women often owned the family business but gave it over to men to run," she said. But more often, women are running the enterprises themselves, she said.
The association estimates that 99.8% of U.S. businesses are small--with fewer than 500 employees--and 37% of U.S. enterprises, or 7.7 million, are female-owned.
The number of female-owned businesses increased 8.4% compounded annually from 1979 to 1990, double the rate of male-owned businesses, says the National Assn. of Small Businesses.
In large companies, women are still rarely found in executive suites, and resistance remains high to their entrance, federal research has shown.
A March report by the government's "Glass Ceiling Commission," which tracks the invisible barriers to advancement by women and minorities, found that 97% of senior managers in Fortune 1,000 industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white and nearly all are men.
Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich has blamed persistent stereotyping, mistaken beliefs that women and minorities aren't qualified for management and fear of change for the lack of progress at large companies.