In January, President Obama signed the historic Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which aims to guarantee equal compensation for men and women. Yet even in the corner office, it seems, women still don't enjoy the same rewards for their managerial performance as men. This year, America's top-paid female CEOs earned, on average, $3.9 million. Compare this to the men, who raked in an average of $11.9 million.
Of course, compensation is a complex thing — an art, some might say. It's based on the length of time an executive has been with the company, her ability to return value to shareholders, her relationship with the board and the desire of the directors to keep her from moving on.
Take Carol Meyrowitz. The chief executive of TJX, the company that owns Marshalls and TJ Maxx, earned $11.1 million over the last year. Jeffrey Immelt, the embattled head of General Electric, took home $11.5 million. TJX's 2008 sales were $19 billion, while GE's 2008 sales were $170 billion.
Yet, Meyrowitz is currently succeeding at prying open thrifty shoppers' pocketbooks, while Immelt is fending off suggestions that he can't manage a company so exposed to the rocky financial system.
Another example shows how executive women still struggle for respect. Lynn Elsenhans, the only woman running a big oil company, was paid $2.2 million last year by $37 billion refiner Sunoco. Bruce Smith, head of refining concern Tesoro, which had sales of $20 billion in 2008, took home $18.6 million.
Public outrage over what's perceived as outlandish executive compensation is spurring closer government scrutiny of executive pay; President Obama has even appointed a "pay tsar." Still, the women on our list don't seem to risk suffering pay caps or reductions. For one thing, no women are running a big financial institution — not a bank, brokerage or insurance company — which have been targets of much of the resentment.
Indeed, stacking the top-paid women against their male peers, they hardly stick out: The top-paid banking chief, Ronald Hermance, Jr., of Hudson City Bancorp, took home $42 million. The top-paid female chief executive on our list, Andrea Jung of Avon Products, earned $11.8 million.
Our list also gives a view into the range of industries where women have pierced the career ceiling — Ellen Kullman at DuPont — the 207-year-old chemicals company — say, or Ilene Gordon at Corn Products International, which makes starches and sweeteners. Nine of the women on this year's list are new to the job in 2009.
Compensation is more than just "pay," it's stock options, bonus and perks too. (See more about this in "Components of compensation" below.) Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland, for example, can get up to $80,000 for use of the corporate jet and $40,000 toward the costs of financial planning. Susan Ivey, who runs tobacco firm ReynoldsAmerican, receives $30,000 toward country-club membership dues.
But before we celebrate the recent achievements of women in corporate America, note that this group is so small, it is almost statistically insignificant: Of the 1,000 largest publicly traded companies by revenues, a paltry 27 women are in the CEO's seat. And in general, women still earn only 78 percent of their male counterparts.
How we calculate compensation:
To determine the rankings, we count compensation when it turns into cash or marketable stock; we do not include the value of options until the executive exercises them. When calculating a chief executive's total compensation for the fiscal year, we count the following: salary and cash bonuses; other compensation, such as vested stock grants; and stock gains, the value realized by exercised stock options.
Components of compensation:
- Salary: Annual base salary earned during the fiscal year.
- Bonus: Annual non-equity incentives earned during the fiscal year, plus discretionary bonuses.
- Other: Includes long-term, non-equity incentive payouts, the value realized from vesting of restricted stock and performance shares. Also includes other executive personal benefits, such as premiums for supplemental life insurance, annual medical examinations, tax preparation and financial counseling fees, club memberships, security services and the use of corporate aircraft.
- Stock gains: Value realized during the fiscal year by exercising vested options granted in previous years. The gain is the difference between the stock price on the date of exercise and the exercise price of the option.
© 2012 Forbes.com