What Fortune's Highest-Paid Women Say About The Rest Of Us

Fortune's 25 highest-paid women make way less than the highest-paid men. Is this a problem?

Released this week, the list of women who "raked it in" last year includes execs of several big-name companies — Safra Catz (pictured), President of Oracle; Irene Rosenfeld, Chairman and CEO of Kraft; and Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, to name a few. Some — like Andrea Jung of Avon and Sharen Turney of Victoria's Secret, work with products aimed at women, but many work in finance, technology, mining, and other gender-neutral or male-dominated industries. One thing that sticks out about the list, however, is how much less its members make than Fortune's 25 highest-paid men.

Catz, the top woman on the list, made $42.4 million in 2008. You have to go all the way down to number nine on the men's list (Jon Winkelried, president and co-COO of Goldman Sachs) to find someone who makes that little. And if the lists were merged, Catz would be the only woman in the top 25. Maybe the reason Fortune splits its list by gender at all is the same reason Olympic sports do — if it didn't, there'd be almost no women in the top spots. But there's a physical reason women can't usually beat men in, say, the marathon — and there's no good reason why a woman can't "rake in" $112.5 million, like highest-paid man Aubrey K. McClendon of Chesapeake Energy.

So should it bother us that no woman in corporate America is pulling down a $100 million-plus paycheck? On the one hand, bloated executive pay has gotten a lot of criticism in the recession, and in a country where so many people are without jobs and health insurance, maybe nobody should be making $100 million. Maybe we should be asking that the top 25 men make less, not that the women make more.

On the other hand, pay disparities way up in the stratosphere are symptomatic of other inequalities, inequalities that may have a bigger impact down here in normal space. A profile of Safra Catz, also in Fortune, highlights some of these inequalities. Writer Adam Lashinsky portrays Catz as a "bad cop" at Oracle who "enforces" CEO Larry Ellison's will. He quotes a "a Valley big shot" on her supposed coldness: "One day she is your long-lost sorority sister. The next day it's 'I don't know who the fuck you are.' " Most disturbing is an anecdote about an early meeting between Catz and an Oracle senior executive. "I'm here to help Larry," Catz said. The executive asked, "Does that mean you're getting his laundry?"

According to an article by Mary Ann Mason in the Chronicle of Higher Education, open sexism like this may be getting less common in the workplace. Rather, "women must adhere to a narrow band of behavior in order to be effective in mostly male settings." Catz's supposed "bad-cop" manner may fall outside this band, but she has managed to rise anyway. Would she be the front-runner to replace Ellison (rather than co-president Charles Phillips) if she followed Mason's advice to "speak low and slowly, but smile frequently?" It's hard to say. But Mason also writes that for women "the layers of missed opportunities, family obligations, and small and large slights build up over the years, slowing their career progress compared with men." These layers may be keeping women in the highest echelons from making the biggest bucks possible, but they have a proportionally higher impact on women lower down, for whom a promotion can mean much-needed money and job security.

Avon's Andrea Jung, #5 on Fortune's list, recently told Newsweek that women would lead the way out of the recession. She said,

More and more women clearly are emerging as breadwinners. I think the economic empowerment of women that has been growing over the past decade is at the "inflection point" with this global recession. Women are, we believe, the solution for their families in their ability to go out and increase household income. When a woman earns a dollar, the payback is higher. She'll invest in her children, in their education, health care, and basic needs. The impact of a woman's role in the economy benefits society at large and that has probably never been more important than it is now.

Women have reportedly been less affected by the recession, and it's certainly possible that their earnings will help bring about a recovery. If this happens, let's hope it results in more workplace equality — not just because it's good for society, but because it's right.

25 Highest-Paid Women [Fortune]
25 Highest-Paid Men [Fortune]
Women: The Answer [Newsweek]
Oracle's Enforcer - Safra Catz [Fortune]
How The 'Snow-Woman Effect' Slows Women's Progress [Chronicle of Higher Education]