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The corporate glass ceiling remains, but 2019 has Seen some epic cracks

September 23, 2019, 8:30 AM UTC

In the spring of 2002, when I was this magazine’s Wall Street editor, I went along with a Fortune staff writer to see Sallie Krawcheck. Krawcheck, then all of 37 years old, was chairman and chief executive officer of Sanford C. Bernstein, a prestigious institutional money management firm known for its no-nonsense equity research. At a time when “research” at the big Wall Street houses was too often suspect—compromised by the desire to please the firms’ lucrative investment banking clients—the dense, sparsely illustrated Bernstein reports had a reputation for fierce independence, if not purity.

Krawcheck, for her part, appeared to radiate both qualities. Whip smart, candid, and rigorous, she was by all accounts a natural leader. And after Fortune put her on its cover—under the headline “In Search of the Last Honest Analyst”—she began a steep ascent that seemed like it could land her in the corner office of a major bank. First, Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill hired her to run its SmithBarney unit. In 2004, Krawcheck became Citigroup’s CFO; then she was named the CEO of Citi’s Global Wealth Management. 

Then, in 2008, she was out—abruptly fired after a high-profile disagreement with the parent bank’s new CEO. Krawcheck landed another top-tier job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, but she lasted just two years in that role. 

Krawcheck’s flameout generated countless pages of commentary about Wall Street’s inhospitality to women. But the truly telling fact is this: In the ensuing decade, only a very few women in finance have come as close to the seat of power as she did. Unlike virtually every other industry, the biggest U.S. banks have never had a woman as CEO—and as Fortune senior editor Claire Zillman details in her probing and thoughtful investigation in this issue, the corporate culture of Wall Street seems to work day in and out against that goal. True, banks and investment firms have publicly committed to diversity and recruited talented women by the tens of thousands. But Claire’s interviews with many of those women show just how far the sector has fallen short when it comes to altering all the ingrained habits, expectations, and “microdecisions” that leave women on the outside looking in.

To put the banking sector’s outlier status in even starker perspective, there is one formidable data set: Fortune’s 22nd annual ranking of the Most Powerful Women in Business. As intact as the glass ceiling remains in much of corporate America, there are signs in this year’s list of some epic cracks. In retail, technology, and health care, women have continued to crash into corner suites. Since last year, they’ve claimed the top jobs at Accenture, Best Buy, and IT giant CDW for the first time, taking the helms of businesses with huge budgets and global reach. “We couldn’t believe how competitive the list is this year,” says senior editor Beth Kowitt, who once again shepherded the MPW ranking with features editor Kristen Bellstrom.

There are dozens of urgent reasons, both ethical and strategic, for companies to make their C-suites more diverse—in every way, not just in terms of gender. (See Kowitt’s profile of Starbucks chief operating officer Roz Brewer, publishing online on Sept. 25, for an example of how a fresh perspective can revitalize a struggling brand.)

And for a timely parable on these themes, please turn to our cover story, “Meet the Women Leading Netflix Into the Streaming Wars.” Senior writer Michal Lev-Ram introduces readers to five behind-the-scenes all-stars, all women, who are racing to develop new hits for the streaming giant. Not long ago, these women would have been shut out of the rooms where the major movie and TV studios made their biggest decisions. But now the industry needs them—because new voices tell new stories. And if there’s one thing that Netflix’s tremendous recent success has shown us, it’s that people around the globe never tire of hearing a great new tale.

A version of this article appears in the October 2019 issue of Fortune as part of the Most Powerful Women package with the headline “Unopened Doors.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Most Powerful Women 2019: See who made the list
—Meet the women leading Netflix into the streaming wars
—Keep these 10 powerful women on your radar
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi aims to create a “sisterhood” of women leaders
Wall Street has never had a woman CEO. Why not?

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