Stalled Progress In the C-Suite

Women still only account for one-tenth of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Stalled Progress In the C-Suite
The highest-ranking Fortune 500 business led by a woman is CVS Health run by the CEO Karen Lynch.

America has reached an inflection point, TIME Magazine proudly declared. 

Under the headline “Great Changes, New Chances,” the publication noted  that women could now be anything they wanted: They could be “cops, judges, military officers, telephone linemen, cab drivers, pipefitter, editors, business executives—or mothers and housewives, but not quite the same subordinate creatures they were before.” Equality is the new reality, was the message writ large. 

The year was 1975. 

Today, nearly five decades later, the optimism underpinning that editorial seems tragically quaint—especially from the perspective of corporate America. Forty-nine years after TIME named “American Women” the “Man of the Year,” women are still a decided minority. Sure, they can be “business executives”—as long as there’s still a man in charge.

On Tuesday, Fortune published this year’s Fortune 500 ranking, the 70th iteration of the annual list of the largest corporations in the U.S, ranked by revenue—and therefore, arguably, by power. For the twelfth year in a row, Walmart tops the list. Amazon, Apple, the health insurance giant, UnitedHealth Group, and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway round out the top five. 

Of all of the companies that made the cut, a mere 10.4 percent are run by women: unchanged from last year. It’s further evidence of the argument that efforts to diversify the highest echelons of corporate America are stalling. 

“We often ask what women need to do differently, but the real question is: What can we all do to drive gender equity?”

These latest figures add to a dismal picture painted by recent research from Standard & Poor’s showing that women in 2023 held just 11.8% of the approximately 15,000 C-suite roles across publicly traded firms in the U.S., a slight decrease from a year earlier. In fact, S&P found that the increase in women's representation among all senior leadership positions in the US dropped to the lowest rate in more than a decade in 2023. And across all C-suite positions, the number held by women actually decreased for the first time since S&P started collecting data in 2005. 

“We often ask what women need to do differently, but the real question is: What can we all do to drive gender equity?” said Jennifer McCollum, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst, a global nonprofit promoting gender equity and workplace inclusion. “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.” 

Women’s push into the C-suite is difficult at the best of times, McCollum acknowledged. But today, progress is also thwarted by limited access for women to “sponsorship and mentorship, affordable childcare, flexibility, and access to reproductive healthcare.” These are “critical for women to show up, stay in, and advance in the workplace,” she added.

None of these are guaranteed in today’s corporate world. On the contrary, many of these are under explicit threat. 

Fixing the gender pay gap and the gender C-suite gap (and more broadly, the gender power gap that is both a cause and product of both of these), requires real change at a federal level, at a corporate policy level and at an individual level. 

Inequality, as it’s showcased by the latest Fortune 500 ranking, is not just a problem in itself, but a symptom of something that’s systemically broken. 

There will never be a shortcut to fixing it.

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