52 CEOs are women in the Fortune 500. And the change halted

«The rise of female CEOs signals an understanding among companies and boards that female and diverse leaders are an asset at this particular moment», claimed Fortune in 2023, presenting that year’s record number of women occupying the top positions in their list of the US biggest companies. «With the right attention to the CEO pipeline – continued the company – the Fortune 500 could double that percentage of female CEOs from 10% to 20% in three to five years».

Twelve months later, mere a few weeks ago, the high hopes for an ongoing rising trend came to a halt. In fact, in 2024*, with no improvement recorded, among the US businesses making the list only 10.4% have a female CEO. In other words, 52 of those 500 companies are run by a woman.

Let’s not get the wrong idea; we still speak of a steady and visible (yet very slow) improvement. A mostly upward line in the past 25 years, going from the two female CEOs recorded in 1998 to the current numbers, that had seen just a few drops along the way. The last one in 2018 when 24 companies had a woman at the top.

Yet, using Jennifer McCullum’s words, “The pace of change is so glacially slow”. Noting the trend, the president and chief executive officer of the workplace gender equity Catalyst advised businesses to ensure the pace doesn’t slow long term. «The solution is to fix systems, not to fix women. Achieving gender equity in the C-suite requires companies to intentionally fill the leadership pipeline and create workplaces that work for women so they can advance».

An economic need

Compiling lists and comparing percentages at the decision level allows us to better understand the situation and its consequent implications. But we should also not forget that, overall, the very top is composed of a handful of available places. In fact, the composition of this specific group does not give reason nor entirely depict the multifaceted tide shifts happening at lower levels. More women, in fact, are entering the labour force. And many more are accumulating the right skills and expertise to occupy leadership roles.

Still, as a senior research analyst at OMFIF (Official Monetary and Financial Institution Forum) commented, because gender disparities “have detrimental effects on both micro- and macroeconomic indicators,” the impact of women’s presence on the whole spectrum can affect a company’s development. Moreover, for its visibility, a business’s top management has a significant impact also besides its decision-making power.

When speaking of gender gaps, we usually think about women’s participation in the workforce or pay differences between sexes – both very real issues. However, in reality, the concept extends to disparity in opportunities and representation in various roles and levels. «Gender gaps are a misallocation of resources», intervened Monique Newiak, deputy chief of the inclusion and gender unit at the International Monetary Fund, that ultimately impacts growth, economic diversification and profits. Also because, as the latest WEF Gender Gasp Report points out, «where diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are longer lasting, the returns follow: increased productivity, adaptability to change and stronger innovation outcomes».

To look at the bigger picture, globally, women’s representation in the workforce remains below men’s in all industries and economies. Especially as senior leaders. And even if female talents account for almost half of the entry-level positions, the drop in their presence starts soon, so much that only a quarter of C-suit roles are occupied by a woman. In 2024, «the ascent from entry-level to C-suit is steeped in 21.5 percentage points».

As Fortune registered a halt in the number of women CEOs in its 500 list in the US, the WEF Gender Gap Report 2024 noted a similar movement worldwide. Despite the positive trends of recent years, with women accounting for 42% of the global workforce and 31.7% of senior leaders (LinkedIn data), the number of female professionals hired into a leadership position has somewhat deteriorated, dropping below 2021 levels. At the beginning of 2024, it arrived at 36.4%. And even if, according to LinkedIn, macro-economic conditions are partly responsible, the explanation does not entirely fit other evidence. In fact, as this year’s WEF report notes, «the higher women’s representation in the workforce is, the greater the resilience to retrenchment during economic downturns».

The career progression

«Fix the system, not the women». Today, they are (at least) as educated as their male counterparts, and the number of profiles ready to occupy C-suit positions is increasing yearly. Of course, we are talking about just some seats if compared to the total workforce worldwide. And about processes that are not linear, statistical, or driven by merits only. Yet, as noted by many different surveys and analyses, a more significant presence of women from the bottom to the top today allows for speculation on their impact in times of crisis. Also LinkedIn researchers report that «results suggest that the higher women’s representation in the workforce is, the greater the resilience of progress achieved». From a growth perspective, a more gender-balanced environment, from entry to the top levels, seems, then, a feasible target for companies – especially considering that women apply for various jobs.

Nonetheless, efforts need to be put into contrasting the drop in numbers of women climbing the career ladder. Companies need to work intentionally to retain the talents they hire and, in some cases, adjust. How to do it? As a starter, promote women and support their ascent along the whole process with better workplaces that work for them (and consequently for all). In concrete terms, among others, offering better parental leaves, more flexibility, and childcare benefits.

Gender inequality at the C-suit level is the symptom of a broken system that has been mended in very few parts and is still fragile. The weaknesses are undoubtedly multifaceted and cannot be solved with just a few quick fixes. It needs commitment and time. For that reason, even the halt in the – still low – growth in numbers at the very top should at least be noted.


* As of June 1st, the following five women have been appointed CEO in 2024: Heidi G. Pets (Sherwin-Williams¢, 176th place in the Fortune 500 List), Ariane Gorin (Expedia, 315th), Lori D. Koch (Dupont, 327th), Joanna Geraghty (JetBlue Airways, 413rd) and Adaire Fox-Martin (Equinix, 456th)

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