50 Women CEOs Now… and Counting

A new milestone was finally reached, with 53 women now running Fortune 500 firms. Experts hope that number becomes a new floor, not a ceiling.

Back in 1972, Katharine Graham became the first female CEO at a Fortune 500 firm when she took over The Washington Post. As recently as 2017, there were only 32 women running the nation’s biggest firms.

On January 1, five more women became CEOs, bringing the number of female top bosses to 53. As of this month—more than fifty years after Graham’s ascent—women run at least 10% of the country’s biggest firms. Experts say the milestone is worth celebrating, but not an end point. “Women as CEOs isn’t an oddity anymore. But their numbers need to be at least doubled,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice.

Experts say a confluence of factors over the last couple of years has helped push the number above 10%. For one, there are considerably more women on boards than there were just five years ago. Women now hold 28% of the corporate board seats at the country’s 3,000 largest publicly traded companies, up from 18% in 2018. “Women on boards have a visual line of sight to high-potential women in the pipeline,” Stevenson says.

At the same time, many organizations have been spending money and time identifying and developing high-potential female talent. This has helped to build up a pool of top talent that could potentially fill CEO slots. “We’ve noticed an increase in women purposefully aspiring to the CEO role and making choices that would lead there, as opposed to being surprised at the opportunity,” says Evelyn Orr, Korn Ferry’s head of CEO and Executive Assessment in North America. That represents a big shift in just the past few years. One of the big takeaways from Korn Ferry’s 2017 “Women CEOs Speak” study was that 65% of the female CEOs interviewed didn’t initially see the top job as a career option.

There is still a long way to go. Though women comprise about 47% of the US workforce, they make up barely a quarter of all senior executives at large US public companies. To improve representation at the CEO level, experts say, firms need to incentivize managers and leaders to bring more women and underrepresented talent through the pipeline. That also means holding those managers accountable for their progress or lack thereof.

At the same time, more men need to become intentional in their efforts to mentor and sponsor women for top jobs, says Tanya van Biesen, managing partner of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice in Canada. “It’ll be incumbent on all those forces to keep working to get that figure to twelve percent, fifteen percent, and beyond,” she says.

If the advice about how to get more women into top roles sounds familiar, experts say it’s because the changes that will produce 20 female CEOs are the same ones that will produce 200. “It’s that simple—which doesn’t make it easy,” Stevenson says.