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The women of the Fortune 500 set another record—but could COVID reverse their momentum?

June 2, 2021, 1:02 PM UTC

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Malala is a Vogue cover star, the Vatican implements new penalties for ordaining women as priests, and it’s Fortune 500 day. Have a great Wednesday.

– Good news/bad news. It’s a big morning for all of us at Fortune—today we launch our annual list of America’s largest companies: the Fortune 500.

It’s something of a Broadsheet tradition to check in on the number of companies in the ranking that have a female CEO. Historically, this has often been a depressing—but I would argue, important—exercise; one of the few yearly touch points that gives us a sense of how women are faring at the tippy top of the business world. Usually, the focus is whether that number went up or down, and by how much. This year, however, I’m happy to announce that it tells a more nuanced, and hopeful, story.

The 2021 Fortune 500 includes 41 companies led by women—an all-time record. Beyond that, it also includes the highest-ranked company ever run by a female CEO: No. 4 CVS Health, with CEO Karen Lynch at the helm. (The record was previously held by GM, which, under CEO Mary Barra, hit a high of No. 6.) Emma has written about Lynch and her historic status before, but checked in with the CEO to get an update for our new issue. Read her latest here.

Also setting an overdue record: Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance (No. 16) and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA (No. 79). Believe it or not, this is the first time the Fortune 500 has ever included two companies run by Black women. In fact, before Brewer and Duckett 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. Let us hope that two is just a start.

For all the news worth celebrating here—and there’s a lot of it!—I would be remiss not to mention that the list of female Fortune 500 CEOs is a lagging indicator. These are women who have spent decades honing their careers, all to prepare themselves to step onto this final rung in the corporate ladder. The titans now running Fortune 500 companies were once women early in their careers; they no doubt struggled with the same challenges that will be familiar to many of you—including the need to care for children or other family members while also excelling at work.

In the years I’ve been covering this beat, the trend has been moving in the right direction, with the number of women in top jobs at top companies creeping up year after year. But in 2021, as we continue to see more and more evidence that the pandemic has ravaged women’s careers, I fear we could be witnessing a turning of the tide. As even the deeply flawed systems that allowed some women to advance at work have crumbled, I wonder how many women might miss a critical rung on their own career ladder this year—and what that could mean for the future of corporate leadership.

Kristen Bellstrom
kristen.bellstrom@fortune.com
@kayelbee

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- Cover star. Malala Yousafzai is on the cover of British Vogue, talking about graduating university and figuring out what to do next. On the 23-year-old's mind? Questions like where to live to what kind of career to pursue. British Vogue

- Vatican report. For the first time in four decades, the Pope issued a major revision of Catholic Church laws. Among the changes this time around, Pope Francis clarified penalties for any woman who attempts to be ordained as a priest, and the person who tries to ordain her. The penalty is now automatic excommunication—which the director of the Women's Ordination Conference called "a painful reminder of the Vatican's patriarchal machinery." NPR

- Landslide. Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat, won a special election in New Mexico on Tuesday to fill the Congressional seat vacated by Deb Haaland, who was appointed Interior secretary. Stansbury, a state representative, captured 60% of the vote, trouncing her Republican opponent Mark Moores. The outcome is an early endorsement of a Democrat-led White House and Congress in a Latino district. New York Times

- Military conflict. How do conflicts of interest in the military justice system allow so many assaults to go unpunished? GOP Sen. Joni Ernst explains why—and how to fix it—in a new video op-ed. New York Times

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Kindred hired JUST Capital's Sarah Green-Vieux as chief impact officer. Breanne Madigan, former head of global institutional markets at Ripple, joins TradeBlock as CEO. Deborah W. Brooks returned to the Michael J. Fox Foundation as CEO. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

- Big budget. How will Canadian finance minister Chrystia Freeland follow through on her mandate to aggressively pursue economic growth? In a new interview, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's right-hand woman dives into her new budget and more. Bloomberg

- Singled out. The new enhanced child tax credit is allocated based on tax filings—the usual designations of individual, head of household, or married filing jointly. But because the tax credit phases out by income level in each category, single parents filing as head of household lose out on the money with less income than married couples do. New legislation is trying to end that "single parent penalty." The Lily

- Fintech express. Fintech companies are changing how individuals save and invest. But market forces alone won't be enough to ensure women are included in this form of economic growth. Venture capitalists, governments, and companies like Robinhood will need to explicitly work to include women and their financial needs, this piece argues. Bloomberg

ON MY RADAR

Men who are worried about a 'baby bust' should try talking to women Daily Beast

Ancient Rome will never get old. Take it from Mary Beard New York Times

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a mega-donor, and the future of journalism The Assembly

PARTING WORDS

"It’s important for me to do it for my people—whether it be women, Black people, transgender people, LGBTQ people—anybody who is scrutinized and oppressed."

-Athlete CeCe Telfer, who's training to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials as a hurdler this month. She would be the first openly transgender Olympic athlete to compete. 

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