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ARTICLE: Women CEOs Reach an All-Time High, But…


In the middle of a torturing pandemic, we've seen some milestones that raise hope over gender diversity. On September 14, 2020, Linda Rendle became CEO of Clorox and the 38th woman now leading a Fortune 500 firm—the highest number ever in that elite corporate club. Just a few days earlier, another woman achieved a first when Citigroup announced that it will appoint Jane Fraser CEO next year, the first time a woman will lead a giant US bank.

Experts say these milestones are the result of 5–10 years of hard effort and may provide lessons to help the business world as it tries to shift to promoting more racial equality in leadership.


But the pandemic poses risks to many of the strides women are making. With kids out of school physically, younger women executives are being pulled into childcare roles more often than men, slowing or even cutting off career-rising prospects. The ability to be the best of everything is a very heavy burden right now.


The new milestone does not impress those who believe we need this trend to become systemic and not just fortuitous. There is concern that any progress can be reversed easily, because pre-pandemic, it still felt like an anomaly, and a female candidate may have been a token. Experts attribute a recent surge in numbers of women CEOs to an influx of women getting experience running large businesses below the CEO level. Successfully handling those roles has given more boards confidence that the female executives can become successful CEOs. Under-the-radar promotions must continue in order for more women to become CEOs in the future. There is also an increasing number of younger women who see becoming CEO as a viable career aspiration, a big—and recent—change.


Still, women executives face a significant hurdle: unconscious bias, an obstacle that won’t disappear with the pandemic. Women who aspire to a CEO post are often viewed as overly ambitious or too outspoken, attributes that would almost never be assigned to a male counterpart.


Experts say that the best hope for more women CEOs in the future may lie with the current crop of female CEOs. The more women the current female CEOs tap to run major lines of business strengthens the CEO talent pool. That prospect isn’t unrealistic. Two-thirds of the female CEOs in the Women CEOs Speak study were primarily purpose-driven and wanted to change organizational cultures.


“The agility women display daily just to juggle and balance the extreme demands in their lives has enabled their leadership duality to both perform and transform as today’s uncharted leadership agenda requires,” says Jane Stevenson, Global leader for CEO Succession and Vice Chairman, Board & CEO Services at Korn Ferry. Read the full article on kornferry.com.

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© 2016 by Boylston Strategic Leadership Associates.

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