Here to stay: The rise of female CEOs in the Fortune 500

Julia Sloat, CEO of American Electric Power. Picture: Business Wire
Ahead of International Women's Day, Business Chief looks at the record number women who are currently heading up companies in the prestigious Fortune 500

At the beginning of 2023, five women started their new jobs. 

But these were not just any women, and they were not working at just any companies. 

These were pioneering, trailblazing women taking charge of companies in the prestigious Fortune 500, which ranks the biggest firms in the US by total revenue.

Crucially, their appointments took the total number of female Fortune 500 CEOs up to 53, thus nudging above the 10% threshold for the first time in the list's seven-decade history. 

Jennifer Parmentier, CEO of Parker-Hannifin. Picture: Parker-Hannifin

While the proportion of these business giants being led by women is still relatively small, reaching double figures is undoubtedly a symbolic milestone and will hopefully prompt a widespread change in attitudes – even if subconsciously. 

A step in the right direction for female leadership

The name Katharine Graham is one that carries huge weight when it comes to conversations surrounding female leadership. 

Graham was the very first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she took over at The Washington Post back in 1972. 

Since then, the number of women in top jobs across the US has risen steadily, but struggled in recent years to stretch much beyond 40 in Fortune's annual list, which launched in 1955. 

Nevertheless, the hiring of five new CEOs on January 1 represented a huge step in the right direction.

Those who took the reins at their respective companies were as follows:

Maria Black, CEO of ADP. Picture: ADP

All five were promoted from within and followed other recent appointments, including Priscilla Almodovar at Fannie Mae, Gina Boswell at Bath and Body Works and Carrie Wheeler at Opendoor.

Jane Stevenson, Global Leader of Korn Ferry's CEO Search and Succession function, said in recent leadership article for the consultancy decision-makers were seeing the installation of women in top positions as "less risky".

She added: "Women are here, and they’re showing results. That just makes it smart to have women in every CEO pipeline.

“Women as CEOs isn’t an oddity anymore. It’s not the majority, but it’s not an oddity. So 10% makes it more and more normal – and less risky, subconsciously, to put a woman in the top spot."

US companies striving for equality have long way to go

Evidently, US-based businesses have been striving for better balance of the gender-equality scales in recent years. 

Women now hold 28% of the corporate board seats at the country’s 3,000 largest publicly-traded companies, according to Korn Ferry, up from 18% in 2018.

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However, while the Fortune 500 hitting that magic 10% mark is no mean feat, firms are a significant distance from where they need to be when it comes to equality in the C-suite. 

Although women make up around 47% of the nation's workforce, only a quarter of senior executives at large public companies. 

And, as we finish celebrating Black History Month, it's also worth noting that only two (Thasunda Brown Duckett and Rosalind Brewer) of the 50-plus women heading up Fortune 500 companies are Black. 

There is clearly plenty more work to be done at the very top of the tree.

Businesses must continue to implement policies and launch training schemes to encourage the recruitment and progression of women into important roles.

Of course, a lot of this responsibility will rest with men, whose duty it is to ensure '10%' is considered meagre in just a few years' time. 

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