In September, Fortune came out with its annual roster of the 50 most powerful women in American business. And for the sixth consecutive year, Hewlett-Packard chair and chief executive Carleton Fiorina garnered the top slot.

She was followed in order by eBay chief executive Meg Whitman; Avon Products chairman and CEO Andrea Jung; Xerox chair and CEO Anne Mulcahy; and Marjorie Magner, chair and CEO of the Global Consumer Group at Citigroup.

Their aggregate compensation packages - while perhaps not in the Dick Grasso category — could probably fund a new transit system for New York City. Or at least help offset the costs of reconstructing Iraq.

I mention this only because even as recently as 25 years ago, a list of 50 top-level women executives of that magnitude would have seemed as improbable as, say, an audit failure leading to the collapse of a 90-year-old global accounting firm out of Chicago ... or, perhaps closer to the zeitgeist of a past era, June Cleaver safely ensconced in the executive suite running a business while Ward offers to remain home to raise Wally and the Beaver.

The ceiling for career-minded women executives in the boys’ club climate of the 1950s, 1960s and even well into the 1970s, more closely resembled concrete in impenetrability than the oft-referred to “glass.” The above-mentioned women, and the ones ranked just behind them, didn’t crack the glass ceiling, they smashed it with a ballpeen hammer.

But unfortunately, many in the previous generation of women in the workforce did not.

I vividly recall a female business law professor during my undergraduate days telling me over coffee that, while attending law school in the early 1960s, she was confronted by a male colleague who told her in no uncertain terms that she was occupying a classroom seat that rightfully should have gone to a man.

If that was her experience during law school, can you envision the sexist landmines that awaited her on the partnership track at a firm during that era?

And while the demographics of the workplace have obviously changed for the better since then, many women executives, as well as those in the accounting profession, would tell you that they’re still moving just slightly faster than FASB sets accounting standards.

While more women are entering the profession, they represent less than 14 percent of partners/shareholders at public accounting firms, and the number of women at senior levels, although rising, still lags far behind most barometers of equality.

It came as a shock to me that the 12 women named to Accounting Today’s 2003 Top 100 Most Influential list represented the most we’ve ever named to that elite group.

Does someone sense a problem here?

Now I don’t profess to have an answer — either short-term or long-term — that can be distilled in the 600 or so words allotted to this column.

But from all the boilerplate phrases I’ve heard or read from workplace experts over the years, such as “balanced scorecard” and “best practices,” it turns out that for a large demographic of the workforce, it has largely been neither.

Bill Carlino

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