The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 hits an all-time record

Female CEOs are at the helm of 7.4% of this year's Fortune 500 businesses.

The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 hits an all-time record

The number of women running America’s largest corporations has hit a new high: 37 of the companies on e 500 are led by female CEOs.

The Fortune 500, which ranks America’s largest companies, has long been seen as a microcosm of U.S. business at large. For that reason, the number of female chief executives on the list is closely watched statistic among those who track gender diversity in board rooms and C-suites across the country.

This year’s tally soundly beats last year’s 33, which was itself a new record. Yet the big picture is less encouraging: even with a record 37 female CEOs, women run just 7.4% of the 500 businesses on the ranking. (For perspective: Twenty years ago, women ran two.) Only in the past four years has the growth of women in these roles accelerated past 30—a general upwards trend, though there have been dips along the way.

The number of women running Fortune 500 companies is influenced by several factors, including executive leadership changes and companies either growing to make the list for the first time, or shrinking to fall off of it. So while the ever-vacillating number is not a scientific assessment of the state of women in American business, it does provide a useful snapshot.

Some of this year’s new additions arrived on the list after taking over Fortune 500 companies from male predecessors in the past year. Carol Tomé, a longtime Home Depot executive, will begin her run as CEO of UPS on June 1. Heyward Donigan, a veteran health care executive, became CEO of Rite Aid in August 2019—in time to keep the drug store running through the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic. After Gap Inc. scuttled a plan to spin off Old Navy into what would have been a standalone Fortune 500 company, Sonia Syngal, who had been tapped to run that business, was instead promoted to run the entire corporation. Kristin C. Peck became chief executive of the $6.3 billion animal health company Zoetis in January. And Jennifer Johnson took over her family business, the $5.8 billion investment manager Franklin Resources, from her brother in February.

Some women among the group of 37 are leaders of companies that broke into the Fortune 500 for the first time this year (the revenue threshold for a company to make the list was $5.7 billion). That group includes Barbara R. Smith, the CEO of $5.8 billion materials business Commercial Metals, and Nazzic S. Keene, CEO of the $6.4 billion government information technology company Science Applications International.

Within the ranks of the 37 women who make up this list, a longstanding problem persists: there is starkly little racial diversity. Only three of the 37 are women of color: Gap Inc.’s Syngal, Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su, and Yum China CEO Joey Wat.

Not one of the 500 companies on the list has a black woman at the helm. That’s a drop-off from last year, when Mary Winston, interim CEO of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, was the only black woman among these chief executives; she has since been replaced with a permanent CEO. No Latinas are in these roles either. (Past black and Latina Fortune 500 female chiefs include former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and former PG&E CEO Geisha Williams.)

There are some familiar names missing from the list of female Fortune 500 chiefs this year. Eight-year IBM CEO Ginni Rometty stepped down in April; she is now serving as chairman through the end of 2020. As of June 15, Marillyn Hewson will no longer be CEO of Lockheed Martin; when she assumed the job in 2013, she became the first woman to run America’s biggest defense contractor. KeyCorp CEO Beth Mooney left her role of nearly a decade in May, while Melisa Miller lasted just five months as chief executive of $6.6 billion Alliance Data Systems.

Other changes of note in the past year include Safra Catz’s leadership at Oracle; she is now the sole CEO of the company after the death of her co-CEO Mark Hurd. At AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership chain, CEO Cheryl Miller is on a health-related leave of absence but is still included in this tally. And Judy Marks is the CEO of $13 billion Otis Elevator, but a technicality prevents her from being included in this group. Otis spun off from Raytheon Technologies in April, a development not considered for this year’s Fortune 500, which is based on the 2019 fiscal year; if Marks is still in charge of the new standalone company when it is expected to make the Fortune 500 this time next year, she will be added to the list.

While the overall picture—that women run 7.4% of the businesses on the Fortune 500—is significant, there are some more micro trends worth noting. Many of these women leaders are concentrated at the bottom of the Fortune 500, where the companies are smaller. Only seven women run Fortune 100 companies; Mary Barra, CEO of the $137 billion auto giant General Motors, runs the largest. Several female CEOs are concentrated in retail, from Corie Barry’s Best Buy to Barbara Rentler’s Ross Stores to Laura Alber’s Williams-Sonoma, while female leadership among the Fortune 500’s tech companies remains rare.

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This Fortune 500 company’s ‘reopening playbook’ is available for free—and has been downloaded 25,000 times

Lear's Safe Work Playbook has been used to successfully reopen the majority of its 40-plus facilities in China and will help do the same at its U.S. plants.

This Fortune 500 company’s ‘reopening playbook’ is available for free—and has been downloaded 25,000 times

500 companies have myriad strategies to protect their most sensitive trade secrets. They guard them. They insure them. They enlist experts to encrypt them. 

What they don’t do, generally speaking, is give them away.

But these are not ordinary times. Earlier this spring, Lear, a global supplier of auto parts based in Detroit (No. 166 on the Fortune 500), spent thousands of employee hours compiling a comprehensive manual on how to resume operations in the wake of COVID-19. Then the company gave it away for free. Lear’s Safe Work Playbook, available on its website, has now been downloaded more than 25,000 times since it was posted on April 6. 

Leer employees in PPE during a shift at the companies plant in Rabat, Morocco.
Courtesy of Lear Corporation

“It was back in March, and as I saw our plants in other areas of the world suspending operations, we were preparing to restart our plants in China,” explains Ray Scott, Lear’s president and CEO. “There were a lot of recommendations out there. But I felt there was not anything off-the-shelf we could take and provide to our plant managers and employees.” That kicked off a monthlong process of compiling the 84-page playbook (now in its second edition), drawing on expertise from throughout the company.

The manual granularly breaks down such things as training employees to “lead with their elbows” through turnstiles, why gloves create a false sense of security, how often to clean the vending machine, why some employees should be encouraged to eat lunch in their cars, and what to do if a worker tests positive for COVID-19. “Every detail of an employee’s day at the plant had to be considered,” says Scott. 

Lear’s playbook has been used to successfully reopen the majority of the company’s 40-plus facilities in China, as well as several in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. Now it’s the blueprint as the company begins to gradually reopen sites in the U.S. as government guidelines permit.  

Employees wearing PPE while working on the production line, at Lear Corporation’s plant in Liuzhou, China.
Courtesy of Lear Corporation

Furniture maker Steelcase is using the playbook, and a spokesperson says it “helped us scale our safety development work much faster.” In Detroit, Glenn Stevens, executive director of industry trade group MICHauto, says he hears from manufacturers “all day long” about how to safely reopen, and he points them all to the playbook. Stevens notes that given how interconnected supply chains are, if smaller parts-and-materials suppliers use the manual, it will quicken the pace at which industries can restart production.

Will this spirit of collaboration extend beyond the pandemic? “The auto industry in Michigan is a very close-knit industry while also being intensely competitive,” says Stevens. But at least for now, “Lear is saying, ‘We’re all in this together.’”

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “A pandemic playbook.” 

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