Women Are Stalling Out on the Way to the Top

Here’s what we’ve learned from 40 years of data on executives in the largest U.S. corporations.

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A decade ago, we were poised to make serious progress: Employers started showing considerable interest in both measuring and improving gender diversity. They dug into the analytics and kicked off initiatives with hopes of turning the numbers around — only to shelve a lot of those efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many companies struggled to stay afloat. As those that have survived begin some kind of restart, they face an exceedingly tight labor market where employees have no shortage of career options. So now is a good time to assess where we are in the advancement of women — particularly in the most visible leadership roles in our biggest businesses, where inequities can be clearly seen.

To do so, we’ve analyzed the career histories and demographics of the executives in the 10 highest-ranking jobs in Fortune 100 companies during the past 40 years. We began the project in 2001 and looked back to 1980 as the baseline, given the evidence that the wave of organizational restructuring that followed the 1981 recession marked a turning point in career advancement generally. Since then, we have checked in on who has these top jobs every 10 years, gathering detailed biographical information about 4,000 executives.1

Gender representation has certainly improved, because there was nowhere to go but up: Not one woman held any of the top 1,000 jobs in 1980. Since then, women have actually advanced more quickly than their male counterparts into executive positions. But they remain largely stuck in support functions rather than moving into key operating roles. At the oldest companies, women’s numbers are backsliding even in those functional jobs.

So organizations seeking gender diversity at the top still have a lot of work to do.



1. Research reported in this article was partially funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MCIU), State Research Agency (AEI), and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Grant No. PGC2018-098767-B-C22.

2.Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2021, www.bls.gov.

3. B. Groysberg, P. Healy, and E. Lin, “Determinants of Gender Differences in Change in Pay Among Job-Switching Executives,” ILR Review 75, no. 1 (January 2022): 168-199; A.D. Hill, A.D. Upadhyay, and R.I. Beekun, “Do Female and Ethnically Diverse Executives Endure Inequity in the CEO Position or Do They Benefit From Their Minority Status? An Empirical Examination,” Strategic Management Journal 36, no. 8 (August 2015): 1115-1134; and L.M. Leslie, C.F. Manchester, and P.C. Dahm, “Why and When Does the Gender Gap Reverse? Diversity Goals and the Pay Premium for High Potential Women,” Academy of Management Journal 60, no. 2 (April 2017): 402-432.

4. V. Büttner, U. Schäffer, E. Strauss, et al., “A Role-Specific Perspective on Managerial Succession: The Case of New CFO Origin,” Schmalenbach Business Review 65, no. 4 (October 2013): 378-408.

5. Such studies include L.A. Bell, “Women-Led Firms and the Gender Gap in Top Executive Jobs,” discussion paper 1689, IZA, Bonn, Germany, July 2005; A. Cook and C. Glass, “Women and Top Leadership Positions: Towards an Institutional Analysis,” Gender, Work & Organization 21, no. 1 (January 2014): 91-103; and C.L. Dezső, D.G. Ross, and J. Uribe, “Is There an Implicit Quota on Women in Top Management? A Large‐Sample Statistical Analysis,” Strategic Management Journal 37, no. 1 (January 2016): 98-115.

6. However, there is no significant difference between the proportion of outsiders among men in these companies (25%) and in the rest of the sample (23%).

7. For example, see I. Fernandez-Mateo and R.M. Fernandez, “Bending the Pipeline? Executive Search and Gender Inequality in Hiring for Top Management Jobs,” Management Science 62, no. 12 (December 2016): 3636-3655. While a U.K.-based search firm in this study placed female candidates in 12.5% of vacancies on average, the proportion of female hires was only 6.7% for the positions filled directly by the client company.

8. F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 7-8 (July-August 2016): 52-60.

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