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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Women CEOs Are Breaking Records in the Fortune 500

By Mary Mazzoni
Roz Brewer Women CEOs

Roz Brewer (center), then CEO of Sam's Club, speaks at Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference in 2012. Now CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Brewer is one of two Black women CEOs in the 2021 Fortune 500. It's a low number, but it's still a record high. 

Women CEOs are taking over the Fortune 500. 

Okay, let's not get carried away. Only 8.1 percent of the companies on the latest Fortune 500 list are run by women, but that's still the highest percentage ever seen. A record 41 companies in the 2021 Fortune 500 are headed by women CEOs. Six are women of color, and for the first time ever, two Black women are running Fortune 500 companies this year. 

These milestones are modest, but they're significant. "The 67-year-old list has long been seen as a microcosm of U.S. business at large. For that reason, the number of female chief executives on the ranking is a closely watched statistic among those who track gender diversity in boardrooms and C-suites across the country," Fortune editor Emma Hinchliffe observed

In 2018, the number of women executives in the Fortune 500 had dropped by 25 percent from the year before, leaving only 25 women — and only two women of color — at the helm of the largest U.S. companies. By 2020, only three of the 37 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 were women of color, and none of the businesses in Fortune's Global 500 had women of color at the helm, a new low for the ranking over the past six years. 

Seeing things change, albeit slowly, is an encouraging sign for the future of racial and gender diversity in corporate America's top brass, but there's still plenty of work to do. "We need to tell the optimistic — but not exuberant — story around what's happening for women," Lorraine Hariton, CEO of the gender equality organization Catalyst, told Hinchliffe of Fortune

A huge year for women CEOs

For years, most women CEOs in the Fortune 500 were heading companies with lower revenues that appeared toward the bottom of the list, but they're breaking through in a big way. No. 4 CVS Health is now the highest-ranking business ever to be run by a woman after welcoming former Aetna president Karen Lynch as CEO in February. 

Even more significant: Until this year, only one Black female executive, former Xerox chief Ursula Burns, had ever served as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. This year, she was joined by not one but two others: Roz Brewer, a former Starbucks and Sam's Club executive who became CEO of No. 16 Walgreens Boots Alliance in January, and Thasunda Brown Duckett, a former head of Chase Consumer Banking who took the helm of No. 79 TIAA a month later. 

Both women have spent their careers looking to extend the ladder behind them, as it were, and enable more women — particularly women of color — to advance. Duckett is a longtime advocate for greater inclusion of Black Americans and other people of color in the financial sector, sponsoring JPMorgan Chase's Advancing Black Pathways program, which aims to help close racial gaps in wealth creation. And Brewer never minces words about gender and racial diversity — she "demanded" diversity on her team as CEO of Sam's Club and plans to invest in programs to develop talent from marginalized communities in her new role at Walgreens. 

Still, gender and especially racial diversity in corporate America's upper echelon, which essentially becomes the talent pool for future CEOs, remains low — a challenge Fortune is looking to compel businesses to address with a big change to the ranking in 2021. 

Can this big change in the Fortune 500 ranking boost inclusion in corporate America?

The Fortune 500 ranking includes data on inclusion for the first time in 2021, "an effort to encourage more companies to publicly report their numbers," Fortune senior editor Ellen McGirt wrote last week in her raceAhead newsletter, which focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion in business. 

Fortune worked with Refinitiv on a program called MeasureUp to encourage companies to track and share their diversity numbers. Still, few companies do: A little over half (262 companies) in the 2021 Fortune 500 reported some level of race and ethnicity data, but a mere 18 companies report “the fullest breakdown of their U.S. workforce (across Black, Hispanic, Asian and Other minorities, and the proportions of these groups in the workforce, management and board, plus racial pay gap data)," David Craig, CEO of Refinitiv, wrote in an op/ed on Fortune.

Based on the data available, "the numbers remain daunting," McGirt wrote. Black Americans occupy only 5 percent of manger positions at the 80 Fortune 500 companies that disclose this metric, and Hispanics and Latinos held just 6 percent of such roles. 

“Publishing these kinds of numbers takes guts,” Craig wrote on Fortune. “But it is an important step toward making meaningful progress.” While the rise of women CEOs, particularly women CEOs of color, in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of things to come, companies need to do more if they hope to fulfill the commitments to equity and justice they made following the murder of George Floyd. 

"It takes courage to disclose this data, but if companies are serious about ending racial injustice, I don’t see that they have a choice," Craig concluded. "We have a promise to keep."

Image credit: Flickr/Fortune Live Media

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni