The number of female CEOs on Fortune’s list of the 500 largest companies in the US rose to a record high this year. But don’t bust out the bubbly yet.
The total number of women leading Fortune 500 companies is now 44, up from 41 in 2021, which means women only lead 8.8% of Fortune 500 companies.
And while this year’s newcomers to the list—Sarah London, CEO of Centene; Ellen Cooper, CEO of Lincoln National; Laura Prieskorn, CEO of Jackson Financial; and Sarah Nash, interim CEO of Bath and Body Works—deserve kudos for making it to the top, women’s advancement overall is far too slow.
Here’s a snapshot of women’s progress as leaders of America’s most powerful firms since 2000:
Fortune magazine has been producing its ranking has since 1955. The first woman to make the list was Katherine Graham, head of the Washington Post, who appeared in1972 and became a mainstay for 20 years. For about a decade, Graham and Marion Sandler, who co-ran Golden West Financial with her husband Herbert Sandler, were the only women on the ranking.
The number of women running companies on the Fortune 500 list didn’t rise above two or three for most of the 1990s, with the exception of 1995, when there was not a single woman running a Fortune 500 firm. And the total number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 club didn’t reach the double digits until 2006, six years into the 21st century.
Since 2000, the march toward gender parity has been anything but exponential. Sure, the number of women on the list in 2022 is double that of 2016 (yay?) but in the past, sudden small spikes on the list went on to disappear in subsequent years. There’s no reason to believe that this picture will improve, despite what we know about the moral and financial reasons for putting women in charge.
The racial breakdown among Fortune 500 leaders is also discouraging. Of the few women who have made it to corner offices, most are white. Last year, Fortune reported that Roz Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Thasunda Brown Duckett, chief of TIAA, became the second and third Black female CEOs to run companies on the list…ever. The first was Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, who took control of that company in 2009.