Women CEOs Reach Record Numbers, but Gender Diversity Faces New Challenges

Today, 38 women lead Fortune 500 firms – the highest number ever.  However, the pandemic poses risks to many of the strides women are making. As most school systems are forced to turn to hybrid or remote learning, younger women executives are being pulled into childcare roles more often than men, which is slowing or even cutting off career-rising prospects.

While the growth in women executives is promising, the trajectory is not constant.  In the past six years, the number of women leading Fortune 500 firms has gone from 24 up 32, then back to 24 in 2017, and now up to 38. Experts attribute the recent surge to an influx of women getting experience running large businesses below the CEO level.   At the same time, there is an increasing number of younger women who see becoming CEO as a viable career aspiration. In Korn Ferry’s 2018 study, Women CEOs Speak, 65% of the female CEOs said that they didn’t think becoming a CEO was a career option until they were actually approached to become one. The combination of more boards having confidence and younger women seeing themselves as CEO one day makes some experts hopeful that the recent surge has some staying power.

Korn Ferry cautions that unconscious bias remains a significant hurdle that won’t disappear with the pandemic. Women who aspire to a CEO post are often viewed as overly ambitious, a trait that would almost never be assigned to a man who had similar aspirations. Often female executives can be viewed as too outspoken as well, another attribute that would almost never be assigned to a male counterpart.

Experts say that the best hope for more women CEOs in the future may lie with the current crop of female CEOs. The more women the current female CEOs tap to run major lines of business strengthens the CEO talent pool. Two-thirds of the female CEOs in the Women CEOs Speak study were primarily purpose driven and wanted to change organizational cultures.