The female CEOs on this year’s Fortune 500 just broke three all-time records

In 2021, the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit an all-time record: 41. But that’s not all. For the first time two Black women are running Fortune 500 businesses (Roz Brewer of No. 16 Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett of No. 79 TIAA). And another executive is making history at the helm of the highest-ranking business ever run by a female CEO (Karen Lynch of No. 4 CVS Health).

These three milestones together amount to an exceptional year for the leadership of the Fortune 500, which ranks America’s largest companies. The 67-year-old list has long been seen as a microcosm of U.S. business at large. For that reason, the number of female chief executives on the ranking is a closely watched statistic among those who track gender diversity in boardrooms and C-suites across the country.

While these achievements are notable, they’re only part of the story. Having a total of 41 women chief executives amounts to female leadership for just 8.1% of the Fortune 500. Says Lorraine Hariton, CEO of the gender equality organization Catalyst, “We need to tell the optimistic—but not exuberant— story around what’s happening for women.”

A watershed moment

The number of women running Fortune 500 companies is influenced by several factors, including executive leadership changes and companies either growing large enough to make the list, or shrinking to fall off 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.

That snapshot had a watershed moment this year, when former Aetna president Karen Lynch took over as the CEO of CVS Health in February (CVS acquired the insurer in 2018). With CVS ranked No. 4 on this year’s list, the $268 billion retail pharmacy turned health care giant is now the largest company ever to be run by a female chief executive. That distinction was previously held by General Motors in 2014, when the automaker, led by CEO Mary Barra at the time and now ranked No. 22, was listed at No. 6.

Fortune 500 Women CEOs-2021
Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer, CVS CEO Karen Lynch, and TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett.
Photographs by Sara Stathas; Jeffrey Salter; Courtesy of TIAA

Lynch’s announcement was quickly followed by another big hire by a CVS competitor; Roz Brewer, the former Starbucks executive, became CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in March. That announcement made Brewer, briefly, the only Black woman currently running a Fortune 500 company—until she was joined by ex-JPMorgan Chase exec and new TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett in May.

Before Duckett and Brewer began their new jobs, only one Black woman—former Xerox chief Ursula Burns—had ever run a Fortune 500 business on a permanent basis. Burns stepped down from that role in 2017, and, with the exception of Mary Winston, who served as Bed Bath & Beyond’s interim chief for several months in 2019, Black female CEOs have been missing from the Fortune 500 ever since.

Taken together, these three jobs seem to reflect a change in who America’s largest businesses are choosing to put in charge. Duckett’s hire was a rare transition between two Black CEOs (she took over from former TIAA chief Roger Ferguson Jr.), while Lynch’s vaults female executives into the very top of corporate America—the Fortune 5.

The new class

Brewer, Duckett, and Lynch all took over from male CEOs. So did new Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser, who achieved an important first of her own: Fraser is the first woman to run a major Wall Street bank. Her appointment, alongside Duckett’s at the retirement and investment manager TIAA, marked notable progress for the finance industry.

Like those four, Dick’s Sporting Goods chief Lauren Hobart, new Coty CEO Sue Nabi, and Clorox chief Linda Rendle were all promoted or hired to take over from a male CEO.

Other arrivals to the list of female Fortune 500 chiefs joined as their companies made the ranking for the first time (the revenue threshold for a company to make the Fortune 500 this year was $5.37 billion). Judith Marks is the CEO of Otis Elevator, which was spun off United Technologies in early 2020, making the list for the first time as its own business this year. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, led by Reshma Kewalramani, joined the 500 at No. 448. Taylor Morrison Home, the homebuilder led by Sheryl Palmer, broke into the 500 list at No. 452. And Nasdaq, the company behind the stock exchange led by Adena Friedman, broke into this year’s 500 list at No. 480.

This year’s list of 41 female CEOs is missing some names who dropped off or departed their roles this year. After seven years in the job, Mary Dillon stepped down as the CEO of Ulta Beauty in a change effective today (she became executive chairman and was succeeded by Dave Kimbell). Tapestry, the Kate Spade owner led by CEO Joanne Crevoiserat, fell off the Fortune 500 to No. 528.

Overall, the diversity of women running Fortune 500 businesses improved from last year. Beyond the two new Black female CEOs, other women of color running these businesses include Gap CEO Sonia Syngal, Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su, Yum China CEO Joey Wat, and Kewalramani of Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Says Hariton of this year’s trends: “We’re seeing more intentionality. We’re seeing a focus on women of color. And we’re seeing a recognition that diversity and women in leadership is even more important.”

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