The C-suite has traditionally been a boys’ club. It wasn’t until Katherine Graham took the CEO role for The Washington Post in 1972 that women were even considered for executive leadership. In fact, the Fortune 500 group wouldn’t see its second standalone female CEO, Linda Wachner, until 1986—more than a decade later. Another decade, another female leader: Jill Barad became CEO of Mattel in 1997.
To say that the rise of female CEOs has been an arduous one is an understatement. Averaging one new woman leader a decade is hardly an accomplishment. Thankfully, times are changing—quickly.
A boys’ club no more
The turn of the century (the 2000s, not the 1900s) kicked off the start of a transformative era for female leadership. While only a handful of women reached the highest track of the C-suite in the previous decades, 1999-2000 proved a pivotal awakening for companies and their views on women leaders.
In late 1999, Andrea Jung became the CEO of Avon—the first Asian woman to occupy a C-suite position. In 2006, she was followed by Indra Nooyi, who took the lead at Pepsico, opening the door for women leaders at multinational companies. And, in 2009, Xerox named Ursula Burns CEO, making her the first Black female CEO in the United States.
In the decade to come, 2010-2020, women of all backgrounds set their sights on C-suite positions. Today, they occupy some of the highest leadership roles in the land—including Mary Barra of GM, Rosalind Brewer of Walgreens, Jane Fraser at Citigroup and many others.
In just over two decades, women have come to occupy 30% of all executive positions in the United States, including at 8% of Fortune 500 companies. It’s an impressive feat considering the once-in-a-decade pace previously hindering their ascension. But while representation is growing, statistics show that there’s still significant opportunity for women in the board room.
Female executive challenges, by the numbers
The first and most glaring opportunity for equality between genders in the C-suite is in pay. Despite their growing presence at the bargaining table, female executives still only make $0.88 for every $1 their male counterparts make. While the average executive salary for male CEOs is $197,354, female executives come it at an average of $173,839.
There’s also a pay gap based on the companies these women represent. According to statistics, among America’s highest earning businesses in the 2000s, women only accounted for 37 C-suite positions, while 463 companies had male-led executive teams. In closing the pay gap for women, representation among top-earning companies is a macro factor that will help drive better pay among women.
Beyond pay, women also face struggles in perception—even after they claim C-suite positions. For example, women who negotiate pay, bonuses and raises from an executive standpoint are often stereotyped as “aggressive” or intimidating,” As many as 30% of women who fight for better compensation are branded as aggressive, which leads as many as 67% of women not to negotiate.
Getting to the C-suite is also a challenge for women. 77% of female executives report that their biggest obstacle was the lack of information on how to advance to an executive position. The path to executive leadership is more difficult for women not simply due to barriers, but also due to lack of resources and direction.
From startup to CEO and beyond
One of the most overlooked stories of emerging executive leadership is the growing number of female founders who are jumping from the startup track to leadership positions at established companies. These women are bypassing the corporate ladder and proving their ingenuity on their own terms—then, they’re bringing proven talent and experience to larger companies, whether through acquisition or on merit.
Data from female-led startups shows that Companies with female founders perform 63% better than those of their male peers. Examples of decorated female founders include Whitney Wolfe Herd, CEO of Bumble and the youngest woman to take a company public, as well as Anne Wojcicki, Co-founder and CEO of DNA testing company 23andMe. These women and dozens of others have paved the way for hundreds more female-led startups to evolve into private companies or to be acquired by public brands—and with them, their female leadership and talent.
A growing presence for good in the C-suite
Women are making themselves more of a force in the board room. Beyond the CEO position, women occupy a senior management position in approximately 87% of companies, according to data from 2020. This figure is up from 68% in 2015. It’s not only the result of trailblazing initiatives by past female CEOs, either.
Companies have begun to look beyond the boys’ club concept, to identify female leadership based on merit—and they’re being rewarded for it. Businesses with high representations of women in leadership roles have a 35% higher return on equity compared to their male-dominated counterparts. It’s leaving many companies looking twice as their female rising stars as they consider new executive appointees.