The nation's largest thrift company has won praise for the progress of women in its corporate ranks.

When Catalyst, a research firm that tracks the progress of women in the corporate sector, announced last week that just under 12% of the nation's corporate officers are women, it also cited Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc. as doing an "outstanding" job of promoting them.

Thirty-eight percent of the top executives at Washington Mutual's are women, as are 29% of the line officers. The company is also one of the few where two women are among the highest-paid executives.

Washington Mutual's eight-member executive committee includes three women -- Deanna W. Oppenheimer, president of consumer banking; S. Liane Wilson, vice chairman of corporate technology; and Fay L. Chapman, general counsel.

Despite the relatively high percentage of women there with clout, Washington Mutual has no special programs to hire or promote them.

"What pleases me as I watch people advance in this company is the fact they do because they are good," said Libby Hutchinson, a Washington Mutual spokeswoman. "There hasn't been a huge push to hire people here just because they are women. In my heart of hearts, I don't think it matters."

Financial services companies have a good track record in the hiring and promotion of women. Indeed, women working at nondepository institutions such as American Express, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae were the most likely to be corporate officers, Catalyst found.

Nearly 15% of women who work in savings institutions -- the group that includes Washington Mutual -- are in top executive roles, according to the study. At securities firms and commercial banks, women hold 11% of such jobs.

But there is still much work to be done, even in the financial services area, says Sheila Wellington, Catalyst's president. For example, one important place where women are not well represented is at the head of business lines and organizational units. According to Catalyst, less than 6.8% of such positions are held by women.

Such jobs are crucial launching pads to top management, Ms. Wellington said. "The jobs with profit and loss and direct client responsibility are the critical ones for advancement," she added. "The numbers are not as good as one might hope."

Arlington, Va.-based Financial Women International found in a study that only 13% of the top management at the nation's 50 largest commercial banks are women.

Not one of these companies has a female chief executive officer, according to Financial Women International.

And only one of the companies, U.S. Bancorp, has a female chief financial officer, the study found.

"In other professions and at the community banking level, women have advanced by leaps and bounds, but this is clearly not the case at the large corporate level," said Linda McArthur, Financial Women International's president.

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