The Latest Data on Compensation for Women CEOs

May 27, 2014 at 2:12 PM ET

High-flying female CEOs on average actually have richer pay packages than their male counterparts, according to a new study. But while that may seem revolutionary, the results are actually deceiving.

The main reason women CEOs did so well in comparison to the men? There are so few of them.

According to the AP/Equilar study, which looked at the CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies who have been in their jobs for at least two years, the women make $1.2 million more than the men on average—$11.2 million to $10 million. But that’s largely because there were 325 male CEOs in the study, versus only 12 women CEOs. 

While the increase in median pay for female CEOs is encouraging, there simply isn’t enough of a “sample size” to give female executives a fair comparison, according to the group that did the study. “I think to get to the point where we can really measure that, we’re going to need to see more females in the CEO position,” says Aaron Boyd, director of governance for Equilar. The study calculated CEO pay by looking at salary, bonus, perks, stock awards, stock option awards and other pay components.

Some top female executives—like Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors—are receiving larger compensation packages, but yet they still struggle to keep up with top male executives in their own fields. In April, GM agreed to pay Barra $14.4 million in total compensation for 2014: $1.6 million in salary, $2.8 million in short-term stock incentives and $10 million in stock awards that largely hinge on GM’s performance.

Yet other male CEOs in the car industry are eclipsing Barra when it comes to pay. Ford CEO Alan Mulally was paid $23.2 million in 2013, while Martin Winterkorn, the chairman of the board at Volkswagen AG, was paid $19.8 million.

The highest-paid female CEO in the U.S. last year was Carol Meyrowitz of TJX Companies Inc., a company that owns budget retailers like TJ Maxx and Marshalls. While Meyrowitz pocketed $20.7 million in 2013, her income was dwarfed by the $68.3 million earned by Anthony Petrello, CEO of oilfield services company Nabors Industries, the highest-earning male on the Equilar list. Meyrowitz is ranked 33rd.

Margaret C. Whitman, the president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is 56th on the list after earning $17.6 million in 2013.

This debate over gender parity in the corner office comes as CEO pay in general—for men and women—is increasingly out of whack with what lower-level employees at those companies are making. According to the study, the median pay package for a CEO exceeded $10 million for the first time last year, thanks in part to the surging stock market. A CEO now makes more than 250 times the average worker, a figure that has continued to rise in recent decades.

The irony is that in order to shave the pay of their highest-paid employees, companies have to spend whopping sums to buy out old contracts.

Mr. Petrello’s boost in income, for example, was largely due to a lump-sum payment of $60 million that Nabors paid to buy him out of his previous contract. The third-highest CEO on the list, Richard Adkerson, of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, received a similar one-time sum of $36.7 million, boosting his total compensation to $55.3 million in 2013.

Fair pay for prominent female executives was a central issue in the New York Times’ recent abrupt termination of Jill Abramson as its executive editor. Abramson was reportedly fired for being “pushy” after she brought up the discrepancy between her pay and pension benefits and those of Bill Keller’s, her predecessor at the paper.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said in a statement that this salary dispute was “a factually incorrect storyline.” He told that Abramson’s compensation was actually 10 percent higher than Keller’s compensation in 2010, his last year at the paper. Abramson was the first woman to become the executive editor of the paper.