This Was Our Year

2019: A Record Breaking Year for Fortune 500 Women CEOs

by Amy Sterling Casil

Financial Frequency. myInspiration

December 27, 2019 .3 min read

Filling the top job at a huge business is a major achievement for anyone, but in 2019, 33 women were Fortune 500 CEOs, an all-time record. Just one year ago, only 24 women were chief executive officers at a Fortune 500 company.

As of 2019, Women Are 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs

It took years for women to make up over 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Ten years ago, only 15 women were leaders of companies big enough to make the Fortune 500. And twenty years ago in 1999, there was only one, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Passing Leadership From Woman to Woman

Developing women's capacity as leaders is challenging at the top levels in huge companies. Women were "one-off" CEOs succeeded by men until 2009, when Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahey stepped down and Ursula Burns stepped into her role. Ursula Burns' story is amazing. She is not only the first African-American female CEO, she started out working as an intern at Xerox, eventually rising to the highest job in the company. Burns is currently the CEO of VEON, a major international telecom based in the Netherlands.

Criticism Comes With The Job

Being a female CEO isn't easy. They gather attention and adulation in the same measure as they do criticism. Indra Nooyi, who stepped down as CEO of PepsiCo last year after 12 years, was criticized for being gender-biased when she commented that women and men ate crunchy snacks like Doritos differently. Nooyi was describing her company's research for a new snack marketed for women who didn't like Doritos. Indra Nooyi's story is remarkable: an immigrant from Chennai, India, she led PepsiCo's financial division before becoming CEO in 2006.

The Glass Cliff

You've probably heard of the "glass ceiling," referring to C-level jobs women can see, but can't achieve. You may not have heard of the term "glass cliff." The glass cliff is a top job that boards of directors give to women when a company is already struggling. Xerox's Anne Mulcahy took over in 2001 when the company was nearly bankrupt. She was considered "unlikely" to be able to turn the company around when she was chosen to lead, but after nearly ten years, she led Xerox from disaster to success. 

One of the newest female CEOs, Rite Aid's Heyward Donigan, might have gotten her job because of a "glass cliff."  Rite Aid is the smallest national drugstore chain and is struggling to maintain profits after selling half of its stores to Walgreens in 2018.

Growing Into the Job

In 2019, a new phenomenon emerged when two female CEOs grew their companies into the Fortune 500: Laura Alber at Williams-Sonoma and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) CEO Lisa Su. Lisa Su has led AMD since 2014, and is an electrical engineer. AMD makes computer microchips and is steadily gaining market share against its competitors like Intel. Ten years ago, Williams-Sonoma, which also owns West Elm and Pottery Barn, had about $3 billion in annual earnings. In 2017 the company crossed the $5 billion earnings mark. With $5.6 billion earnings in 2019, Laura Alber and the company she leads earned their place in the Fortune 500.

By The Numbers

Over half of the female CEOs who've ever served as leaders of Fortune 500 companies are in their jobs right now. Only 64 women in total have been CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the six decades the magazine has maintained its list.

Before the list, one woman did serve as CEO of a large company: in 1889 Anna Bissell took over from her husband as CEO of Bissell Vacuum company. Another top female entrepreneur was Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam C.J. Walker. She founded the Madam C.J. Walker company making beauty products for African-American women in 1910 and was the wealthiest "self made woman" in the U.S. when she died in 1919.

Being Likeable vs. Successful

Being a woman who's responsible for the bottom line and hiring and firing is anything but easy. Glassdoor's list of 100 "most beloved" CEOs features only eight women. Lynsi Snyder, the CEO of In-N-Out Burger, was #3. Deloitte's Cathy Engelbert, the first woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 accounting firm, was #15. You have to go all the way to #52 to find another well-liked female CEO, Colleen Wegman of Wegman's Food Markets. 

Do women have to trade likability for success, especially at higher levels like the Fortune 500? That's hard to say. Men probably get their roles differently from women when they move into leadership at big companies. The new Fortune 500 female CEO "boom" still represents less than 7% of the total CEOs at the top 500 companies in the U.S. We've seen a lot of achievement in 2019, but there's still a long way to go.