The number of women leading the largest companies has always been small. This year, it got 25 percent smaller, according to Fortune magazine. The reversal is leading to a search beyond the usual explanations for why women don’t become chief executives — things like not being competitive enough, failing to chase opportunities for promotion and choosing work-life balance over high-powered jobs.
That’s because evidence shows that the obstacles for female executives aren’t just because of their individual choices. There are larger forces at work, experts say, rooted in biases against women in power, mothers who work or leaders who don’t fit the mold of the people who led before them.
The 25 percent decline is so large in part because women’s numbers are so small to start with. There’s also a phenomenon known as the glass cliff, in which women are more likely to be put in charge of failing companies. But in many ways, the reasons the number of female chief executives is falling are the same reasons there aren’t more of them in the first place.
For many years, it seemed as if the share of women at the top of corporate America would slowly increase over time. The number of women leading companies in the Fortune 500 had grown to 6.4 percent last year, a record high, from 2.6 percent a decade earlier.
After reaching an all-time high of 32 in 2017, the number of female Fortune 500 chiefs has slid back down to 24. That’s a one-year decline of 25%. The drop is due primarily to a number of powerful women leaving their corner offices. In the past year alone, more than a third of those women (12) have left their CEO jobs, including a few long-time veterans of the ranking.
As the Fortune 500 list went to print last week, Campbell Soup Co. CEO Denise Morrison announced she was retiring, effective immediately (thus, while Morrison appears on the June 2018 ranking, she is no longer in office). The company did not explain her abrupt departure and did not take questions from analysts on the matter. The 64-year-old had been at the helm since 2011; she was with the company for 15 years.
There were also some newcomers to the—far too exclusive—club this year: Ulta Beauty’s Mary Dillon, Kohl’s Michelle Gass, Yum China’s Joey Wat, and Anthem’s Gail Boudreaux. Dillon, who appeared on Fortune‘s list of Most Powerful Women for the first time last year at No. 48, has been running the cosmetics company since July 2013, though this is the first time that Ulta has appeared on the Fortune 500. The other three CEOs have been appointed in the past year.
Women in business start out equal to men in terms of jobs and pay. But at each level, they disappear. Only 22 percent of senior vice presidents are women. And of those, just 21 percent have roles related to generating revenue, which generally lead to C-level jobs, according to the annual Women in the Workplace study by Lean In and McKinsey. The drop-off starts with the first promotion to management: Women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than their male peers.
“Men and women are all going into high-powered jobs,” said Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School and chairwoman of its gender initiative. “The question is what happens to them down the road, and that’s a messy story. People say they’re opting out, they want work-life balance, but we know from a lot of research that it’s not as simple as that. They’re not given opportunities.”