Just one year ago, we hit a record high of 32 women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Today, that number has dropped to just 24.
A few notable women no longer at the head of their companies include Margo Georgiadis, who left Mattel Inc. in April, Denise Morrison, who left Campbell Soup Company in May, and Shira Goodman, who left Staples Inc. this past year. Others include Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. and Irene Rosenfeld from Mondelez International Inc. (and the former CEO of eBay Inc.).
What's causing this rapid decline in female CEOs after appearing to have made such progress?
“As long as we have these fortuitous [women-CEO] appointments instead of a real gender pipeline being built as a regular course of business, the numbers are going to be volatile,” Jane Stevenson, the head of global CEO succession practice for recruitment firm Korny/Ferry International, told the Wall Street Journal.
Stevenson believes that companies in general aren't employing enough women at all levels, therefore hurting their chance at having a female climb the corporate ladder to CEO, and making it almost impossible to have back-to-back female CEOs.
In fact, over the last five years at S&P 500 companies, only once has a female CEO been succeeded by another woman. Debra Crew became CEO of tobacco company Reynolds American Inc. after Susan Cameron left in January of 2017.
Women also only account for 20 percent of C-suite executive positions, according to a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. The study that collected data from 222 companies in 2017 also showed that women aren't being placed in roles that normally lead to the path of becoming a CEO.
Senior women are not finding themselves in bottom-line operational roles with profit-and-loss responsibility, which is the typical path to becoming a CEO. Rather, women are being promoted and placed in positions overseeing legal departments, according to WSJ, making it more difficult to be considered for a CEO position.
When women are placed into CEO positions, however, they are more likely than men to be chosen when a company is in crisis, according to a recent study by Utah State University that looked at the tenures of 50 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies before 2015. While this finding could be due to the fact that women are more likely to take a career risk that men in their position might not, the scenario creates obvious difficulties when it comes to maintaining that position.
While female CEO rates over the last year have dropped, so, apparently, have male CEO rates. According to research by Equilar, women are leaving their CEO positions at a similar rate as their male counterparts.
A few high-profile male CEO exits in 2017 include Steve Wynn from his casino and luxury hotel businesses, Richard Smith from Equifax Inc., and Jeff Immelt from General Electric.
While the dropping of female CEO rates cannot be pinned to one specific issue, Stevenson compared the fight to place women in more CEO positions to a game of chess, claiming companies need to be hiring more women in all positions, increasing their chances of rising to the top.
“You have to set up the moves to be able to make the moves," she said.