37 out of 500 is better but not nearly enough: Representation of women CEOs who lead Fortune 500 companies must continue to climb

This year, a record 37 companies on the Fortune 500 list are led by women CEOs. Even at this record high, women CEOs only represent 7.4% of these 500 companies. 

I believe any progress toward equality is good — dismantling years of misogyny in the workplace won’t come overnight — but when talking about strides in diversity, it’s important to look at the bigger picture, and be aware of how far we’ve really come. 

The Trailblazers Who Made the List

Just fifty years ago, every CEO position in the top 500 companies was held by a man. It wasn’t until 1972 that Katharine Graham became the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Graham took over The Washington Post when the former CEO –– her husband –– passed away. Though it may seem like this was a placeholder move, Graham went on to lead WP for the following two decades, even presiding over the paper during Watergate, one of journalism’s biggest scandal coverages. 

Other notable women CEOs who became “firsts” are Mary Barra, who became the first female auto CEO (General Motors) in 2014, Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall who became the first black woman CEO in the NBA (Dallas Mavericks) in 2018, and Beth Ford, who became the first openly gay woman to lead a Fortune 500 Company (Land O’Lakes) in 2018. 

Breaking Into the Boardroom

In 2016, nearly 40% of new directors at the nation’s 100 largest companies were women, but only 21 fortune 500 companies had a woman CEO. The next year showed a record high (at the time) for women CEOs with 32 Fortune 500 companies having woman leads. That same year, women made up 50% of the workforce, earning more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men, and yet they only held 19.9% of board seats. The number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies dropped to 24 in 2018, but it rose again with a record-breaking 33 in 2019.  

When diving deeper into the 37 women in 2020’s List of Fortune 500 CEO list, only three are women of color, with zero being Black or Latina. These numbers showcase the strides we still have to make, not just in the CEO role but all c-suite positions.

It’s also interesting to note that some of these 37 CEOs are leaders of companies that broke into Fortune’s 500 list for the first time this year. It is my belief that this signifies that older, traditional, and established companies aren’t making the same strides in women leadership as newer, up-and-coming companies are. In fact, only seven of these 37 women run Fortune 100 companies.

Why the Path to CEO May Still Be Blocked for Women

According to a WSJ report, women are receiving more promotions than before and are filling up multiple executive seats. But, they’re still only able to go so far as they’re removed from positions that are traditionally seen as stepping-stones to CEO, such as management jobs that hinge on a company’s bottom line.

Taking a closer look, Forbes makes the case that women are often thrown onto leadership teams for the benefit of diversity, not to advance their careers. This is demonstrated as women are more likely to serve in roles that deal with people ––human resources, legal, or other administrative departments –– rather than the bottom line in finance or sales departments. 

Some implicit or unconscious biases that likely keep women out of the CEO position can be attributed to the notion that men are more likely to mentor and coach other male colleagues. Typically, people choose a successor who is similar to themselves, so a woman can be looked over by a male leader for this reason alone. 

Boston Consulting Group brought up another bias that centers around women’s ambition –– while men are oftentimes perceived to constantly seek advancement, women are seen as being content with their current roles. Stereotypes go as far as to assume that when a woman’s family grows, she’ll likely lower her career aspirations to assume a hands-on, nurturing role within her family. In reality, a study of more than 200,000 employees found that 85% of mid-career women in companies reportedly sought a higher position –– almost equal to 87% of men who said the same. At companies with lower gender diversity, only 66% of women said they wanted to advance. So, women’s ambition can be attributed in part to a company’s culture of inclusion.

Speaking of company culture, it’s interesting to note that even when women do become CEOs, it’s found that they’re more likely to step down. The 2018 Network of Executive Women report looked at data from 400,000 employees at eight major companies, and they found that senior women left their jobs at nearly four times the rate of senior men. Their higher attrition rate is related to the idea that they’re treated differently, and face more obstacles than men.

While it’s amazing to see progress being made for and by executive women within the top 500 companies, it’s important to note that we still have a long, long way to go.