Despite some progress in recent years, the "glass ceiling" is still an obstacle that keeps all but a few women from reaching senior management positions in major corporations.
That's according to a recent report from the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations that promotes standards for workplace rights and occupational safety.
"Women have been moving steadily into occupations, professions and managerial jobs previously reserved for men," the report said. But "women are still concentrated in the most precarious forms of work throughout the world and breaking through the 'glass ceiling' still appears elusive for all but a select few."
The report, "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management," showed that in 1999 women held only 5.1% of executive management positions in the 500 largest U.S. corporations. In other nations, women had achieved even less. Women held just 3.6% of top positions in Britain, 3% in Germany and Brazil and 1.3% in Australia.
Linda Wirth, senior gender specialist for the ILO, said the 1999 figures were the most recent available that showed a global comparison. She added that it was difficult to make sharper comparisons between nations, given the differences in how countries record their data. For the purposes of the study, for example, top-level positions in the U.S. were defined as vice president and above.
Wirth said even the most successful women often wind up in so-called feminized positions--personnel, communications and accounting--in major companies, and not the career paths that lead to chief executive opportunities.
Around the world "we're still talking about path breakers, women who battle and somehow make it," Wirth said.
An example of that struggle is Janiece Webb, senior vice president of the Internet software and content group for Motorola and the highest-ranking woman in the company.
Webb started 29 years ago, at age 18, on a graveyard shift at a Motorola assembly line testing semiconductors. But she took a daunting task and made it work for her, writing a training manual and helping her shift become the most productive at the plant.
"I took every job that other people didn't want to do," Webb said. "Many times people would say 'We won't put a woman in a job like that.' You have to own your career. Take charge of it because most other people never have a vision of what you are capable of."