The gap at the top

Women hold just a quarter of C-suite jobs in top US companies, Korn Ferry research finds. Female CEOs are rarest of all.

Although politicians may contend that the glass ceiling has millions of cracks, women still struggle to break through it to ascend to the elite jobs in America’s top 1,000 companies by revenue, new Korn Ferry research finds.

The firm took a recent, timely snapshot of US corporate leadership’s gender diversity, determining that women hold on average under a quarter of the top jobs across the most prominent C-Suite titles (CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO, CHRO) and several industries (consumer, energy, financial, life sciences, industrial, technology).

“Study after study shows that diverse senior teams provide better corporate results,” Korn Ferry Managing Principal Peggy Hazard said. “Having more women at the top is a priority for our clients. However, the needle is not moving as quickly as any of us would like to see.”

Indeed, when it comes to the top job in American business—being a corporate CEO—women hold only 5% of these most-senior posts; that percentage remains flat from 2015 and reflects the lowest gender diversity of any C-suite post.

Meantime, fewer than 1% of CEOs in the life sciences industry are women. This excludes some health-care providers and hospital systems, which are often nonprofit organizations that may not publicly disclose financial information. The highest percentage of female CEOs is in the consumer industry (9%), followed by energy (6%), financial and technology (both 5%), industrial (4%), and life sciences (less than 1%).

What’s the gender diversity in other C-suite roles?

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

Just 12% of CFOs across industries are women, though the consumer sector leads at 15%, while financial and life sciences lag at 9%. “While the percentage of female CFOs is still small and more progress is needed, fortunately, interest in promoting and recruiting women into the role of CFO continues to rise,” said Bryan Proctor, Korn Ferry global financial officer practice leader. “A common barrier of female advancement to the top spot continues to be a lack of critical opportunities to demonstrate leadership, such as international assignments and operational roles. While the organization is responsible for offering these career-advancing assignments and opportunities to high-potential females, we have found that qualified women who proactively seek out these roles and experiences are increasingly being recognized and rewarded.”

Chief Information Officer (CIO)

CIOs are only slightly more gender diverse than CFOs; women hold 19% of these roles across all industries. “Having gender equality in the CIO role is already top of mind for CEOs and boards. We expect this focus to continue for years to come as the CIO creates greater strategic impact across organizations,” said Craig Stephenson, Korn Ferry managing director, North America CIO Practice. “We are working with clients to change their view from focusing on just the CIO to the entire technology function to facilitate broader cultural evolution. We believe this achieves a higher percentage of women across the function and an accepting culture to ensure organizations retain and attract the best talent. There is a significant opportunity for women who are successful technology leaders to create even greater impact in an organization, in the role of CIO and in the board room.”

Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

Under a third (29%) of CMOs are women, though lower in the ranks the pipeline is robust. “The marketing field is facing a conundrum. In more junior positions, there is a level playing field between men and women, but the percentages of women plummet at the highest levels in the function,” said Caren Fleit, Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader, Global Marketing Center of Expertise. “Organizations need to create an environment to not only attract but retain these high-potential female professionals. That includes mentorship programs, flexible working environments, and clear paths for advancement.”

Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)

This is the only C-suite role where women achieve parity, holding 55% of CHRO posts across industries. “In our research, we find that women rank higher on key competencies needed in the CHRO role, such as collaboration and negotiation skills, the ability to balance multiple constituencies, and an appreciation for the dynamics of the overall business,” said Joseph McCabe, vice chairman in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. “Interestingly, other Korn Ferry research shows a distinct correlation between CEO and CHRO competencies, but women are still not making it to the very top spot at the rate they should.”

Does gender diversity vary by industry?

The financial sector comes in at the highest for gender diversity at 28%, followed by technology (25%), energy (24%), consumer and life sciences (tied at 23%), and industrial (22%). “In every industry we analyzed, there’s a tremendous need for improvement to bring more women to the C-suite,” Hazard said. “This is a joint responsibility of the women to seek out experiences and development that can help them lead and succeed, and for organizations to create an environment where women feel empowered to progress in their careers at all levels.”