Women in business leadership positions are no longer unusual sights to see within industries all across the board—although we still don’t come across females in management as much as you might think. And while the discussion over gender equality, pay gap, and related issues in the workforce is hotly debated, there is little question that women face unique challenges in their quest to achieve fulfilling careers and management level positions.
Well-Known Women in Management in Fortune 500 Companies
Looking for some inspiration? Check out these well-known women who’ve earned top leadership positions within some of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world:
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook
Sandberg became Facebook’s COO in 2008. According to Forbes, she boasts a net worth of $1.7 billion.
Beth Ford, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Land O’Lakes
Ford is the first openly gay female CEO of an American Fortune 500 company. She has been the CEO of Land O’Lakes since 2018.
Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of the General Motors Company
Assuming the role of CEO in 2014, Barra is the first female CEO of a major automaker.
Ginni Rometty, Chairman of IBM
While she recently stepped down as CEO of the major international technology company (a position she held since 2012), Rometty is currently Executive Chairman. She is also the former IBM president.
Mary Dillon, CEO of Ulta Beauty
Prior to becoming the leader at Ulta Beauty in 2013, Dillon served as the CEO and president of U.S. Cellular from 2010 to 2013 and the global chief marketing officer and executive vice president of McDonald’s from 2005 to 2010.
Barbara Rentler, CEO of Ross Stores
Rentler has been the CEO and a member of the Board of Directors for the clothing company since 2014.
Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s
Gass became CEO and Director of Kohl’s in May 2018. She also serves on the Board of Directors at PepsiCo.
Margaret Keane, CEO of Synchrony Financial
Synchrony Financial spun off from General Electric as an independent bank, and has been under Keane’s leadership since 2014. Keane is also the CEO and president of Retail Consumer Finance in Americas since 2005.
Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle
Billionaire Catz was named co-president and chief financial officer of the computer software company in 2011.
Marilyn Hewson, Chairman of Lockheed Martin
Hewson served as chairman, president and CEO of the major aerospace and defense manufacturing company from January 2014 to June 2020. She remains executive chairman.
Sonia Syngal, CEO of GAP Inc.
Syngal has served as CEO of GAP Inc. since March 2020, and is currently the highest-ranking Indian-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy
Barry became the consumer technology giant’s CEO in 2019.
Michele Buck, CEO of The Hershey Company
In 2017, Buck became the first female Chairman, President, and CEO of the American food manufacturing company,
Jayshree Ullal, CEO of Arista Networks, Inc.
Arista Networks, Inc. is a major cloud networking firm. Ullal became CEO in 2008.
Exploring the Ratio of Women to Men in Management
According to the global nonprofit group Catalyst, American women are routinely outnumbered by American men in leadership roles. Only about 40 percent of business management positions overall are held by women, despite the fact that women make up about half the work force.
For example, only 25 (5 percent) of the companies which made the Fortune 500 list in 2018 were led by female CEOs. As it happens, none of these women were black. (As of today, the only black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company was Ursula Burns of Xerox; Burns stepped down from her role in 2016.) Even so, women make up about 44.7 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ staff.
The exact ratio between men and women in management depends on several factors, including the industry and area of business. For example, 43 percent of human resources directors are female, but females make up only 17 percent of sales directors and 16 percent of chief information officers.
The ratio of women to men in management also appears to be affected by region of the world, too. In Latin America, 25 percent of senior positions are held by women. This number jumps to 32 percent in Eastern Europe.
Challenges Faced by Women in Management
Women in management face a variety of challenges that men often don’t have to experience, or at least will never experience in the same way or to the same degree. Some research-based challenges faced by women, and particularly by women in male-dominated industries, include:
- Being held to higher standards, according to data from the Pew Research Center
- At the same time, not being taken as seriously by colleagues, peers, and staff
- High levels of stress and anxiety
- Greater family demands, including needing to “catch up” after taking time off to have children and raise a family
- Stereotypes associated with being female in a leadership role (e.g., being called “bossy” instead of assertive, or the assumption that women are not tough enough to handle the job, or that women who have had children automatically lose the ambition to lead)
- Less access to mentoring and career development opportunities
- Sexual harassment
- The “good old boy” network (usually informal and implied) that promotes preferential treatment and networking opportunities for male colleagues based on friendships, connections, favors, shared social backgrounds, and positions of influence
- Different risk tolerance levels
- A lack of readiness within a company’s culture to hire or promote females into leadership roles
- Managing societal expectations about women’s life roles (e.g., the work/life balance)
Sadly, many women in leadership positions find themselves with a lack of recourse for things such as sexual harassment and favoritism. Even when appropriate action is taken, they may fear retaliation or being “shut out” of future opportunities for career growth. As a result, women often end up resorting to a variety of coping mechanisms, such as:
- Socially isolating and distancing themselves from other colleagues
- Trying to adapt and fit into masculine norms by acting like “one of the guys,” which can be stressful in its own right and further normalize the “good old boy” culture
In other cases, women may opt simply to leave a position, turn down a position, or leave the industry altogether.
Ways for Businesses to Support Career-Minded Women on Their Journey to Leadership Positions
There are many ways businesses and companies can help qualified female employees, both current and prospective, find their way into leadership positions. Here are a few suggestions from an in-depth article posted on Harvard Business Review:
- Identify such talented women early on.
- Provide these women with the same opportunities for growth and development that is provided to talented men in the company. This includes giving them client and customer responsibility and expecting or challenging them to relocate, travel, and make the same type of commitments required for anyone aspiring to a particular leadership role.
- Treat them with basic human decency by accepting them as valuable members of the management team. This includes involving them in every kind of relevant communication or networking opportunity.
- Recognize that the business environment is often more stressful for females than males.
Additional strategies that can help women qualify for leadership roles include launching formal sponsorship and mentorship programs and incorporating some flexibility for employed parents.
Companies who are concerned with a lack of female leadership in upper management may also consider consulting with outside professionals who can help them remove barriers to advancement for talented women and create a more inclusive and diverse culture within their business.
The lack of gender diversity in leadership and senior management roles in business is not just an indicator of insidious discrimination and stereotyping. Women often do make different life choices than men—including the desire to have children and spend more hours with their family—which can affect the course of a woman’s career.
Even so, ample opportunities exist for women in upper management positions, and addressing barriers to these opportunities is an important step in helping more qualified women take on these leadership roles. By promoting (and retaining) qualified female leaders, businesses certainly stand to benefit from welcoming more women into their boardrooms.