Why Top Women Are Disappearing From Corporate America

Few become CEO—even fewer get second chances. Investigating the ongoing loss of a crucial asset.
September 9, 2016, 10:30 AM UTC
Photograph by Stephanie Gonot for Fortune

Why Top Women Are Disappearing From Corporate America

Despite progress, the number of women Fortune 500 CEOs remains tiny. Many female c-suite stars don’t get second opportunities, ending up in an invisible corporate purgatory. Why is business still underutilizing one of its most valuable assets?

Renée James has the sort of résumé that CEOs are made from. She rose from product manager to become president of Intel (INTC). She accumulated myriad experiences there, including senior operating and nonoperating roles in multiple divisions. She was a prominent player in a prominent industry, placing 21st on ­Fortune’s 2014 ranking of Most Powerful Women in Business. James was one of two internal candidates to replace Intel CEO Paul ­Otellini. In a very unusual move, she and Brian Krzanich pitched themselves as a package deal, in which they would become co-CEOs. Only Krzanich got the job. Two years later, in July 2015, James announced she would leave in January 2016 “to pursue an external CEO role.”

With that sort of background, you might assume that James, 52, would be snapped up as a big-company CEO. Instead she found herself in a corporate catch-22: Boards hesitated to hire her as a chief executive because she hadn’t been one before. “I was president of a very big company, bigger than most companies out there,” James says. “But still people say, ‘She would be a first-time CEO.’ You know how many people have said that? It’s insane.”

Earlier this year James became an operating executive in the Carlyle Group’s telecom, media, and technology practice. It’s a prestigious and well-paid position, and James says she loves it. But it’s also the type of role that retired executives typically sign on for when they’re on the downslope of their career and they’re no longer craving an ambitious all-in gig. That doesn’t describe James. She is vibrant, fully engaged, and a member of several major boards, including Citi’s (C)and Oracle’s (ORCL).

There are 126 women who fell off Fortune’s MPW list between 2000 and 2015. Of those, some 30 retired purposely or are over 65 and likely too old for another top role at a large company. Four are ill or have passed away. Sixteen fell off the list simply because higher-ranked women replaced them and continue in their same jobs. Others went to small startups, private equity, and nonprofits or work part-time as directors on boards. But only 12 went on to another major operating role in a large company, and only eight currently hold the CEO title at any size private or public company. That means that just about 13% of the women once on our list, all of whom built incredible careers at large corporations and are of prime working age, had another major role at a big public company.

To see our 2016 Most Powerful Women list, click here.

Even those who achieved the ultimate business success—a seat in the corner office—have found that achievement hard to replicate. Of the 50-odd women who have become CEOs of a Fortune 500 company since 2004, only two—Meg Whitman and Susan Cameron—have repeated as a Fortune 500 CEO. Whitman went from eBay (EBAY)to Hewlett-Packard; Cameron was tapped to return to her old company, Reynolds American (RAI). (A third, Carol Bartz, followed a term as chief of Autodesk, a Fortune 1,000 entity, by heading Yahoo.) You could probably name more men off the top of your head who have had multiple stints as Fortune 500 chiefs. For context, consider that of the 93 men during this period who left their jobs under pressure, five of them later returned as CEOs of another public company, according to search firm Spencer Stuart. For the five women pushed out, the number is zero.

The mere fact that there are so few CEO jobs means they are incredibly hard to come by for anybody. And as companies work harder on internal succession, landing an external CEO gig is increasingly akin to winning the lottery: In 2015 only 10% of new chief executives were outside hires, according to Spencer Stuart. That means that a person of either gender who doesn’t get the job at his or her own company is unlikely to get it elsewhere. Still, scarcity does not completely explain the fact that only 24, or 4.8%, of the CEO positions in the Fortune 500 are currently held by women—a number that’s been stagnant for two years and that has risen only glacially in the past decade.

Photograph by Stephanie Gonot; Set stylist: Todd Davis—Redeye; Wardrobe Stylist: Ashley Guerzon; Hair & Makeup: Mishelle Parry—Celestine Agency
Photograph by Stephanie Gonot; Set stylist: Todd Davis—Redeye; Wardrobe Stylist: Ashley Guerzon; Hair & Makeup: Mishelle Parry—Celestine Agency

This is a difficult story to write. At Fortune we have long championed the progress of women in business, which is very real. The women who make up our MPW list are powerful by any measure. The CEOs alone control $1.1 trillion in market capitalization, run a vast swath of industries from defense to technology to consumer products, and make decisions that influence the lives of millions. They continue to make inroads on corporate boards (see more on that here) and in the C-suite generally, in the public sector, and perhaps even in the Oval Office, where the chief executive of the Free World may soon be a woman (for more on Hillary Clinton, click here).

Despite all that, there is something wrong if so many all-star women at the peak of their careers, with decades of top-level management experience, can’t land the ultimate job. There is also something wrong if, in the prime of their careers, they’re not fully utilized. At the very least, the Big Business community is suffering a tremendous leakage of top-tier talent at a time when there is more volatility and disruption than ever before. “It is a huge waste,” says Jim Citrin, head of the North American CEO practice and member of the board practice at Spencer Stuart.

It is true that the numbers of female CEOs are so small that one new posting can noticeably alter the statistics. But it is also hard not to see something amiss. In 2016, why are so many top-tier executive women—women who have proved themselves time and again—disappearing from corporate America?

The glass cliff. It is a phrase that evokes a slippery, life-threatening danger, a high peak that takes decades to summit but weeks to tumble from. Coined by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of England’s University of Exeter in 2004, the term refers to a phenomenon in which women leaders are more likely to be offered the top position at companies that are struggling or in crisis. That may be because men see the job as too risky or that women realize that the best way to prove their mettle is to take on the toughest assignments. “Their tenure is characterized by precariousness,” says Ryan, professor of social and organizational psychology at Exeter. The most obvious recent example is the stormy tenure of Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer (more on her later). The glass cliff applies beyond the business world, it appears. Note the sudden rise of Theresa May to Prime Minister of the U.K. following the shocking Brexit vote—after which the male leaders who pushed for Britain to leave the European Union declined the opportunity to steer the country through its messy aftermath.

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New research supports the thesis. Alison Cook and Christy Glass of Utah State University studied all 50 of the women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies through 2014. They found that 42% were appointed during times of crisis, compared with 22% of a matched sample of men in the same period. Those women also began their jobs with less influence; only 13% who became CEOs were also named chairman of the board—­compared with 50% of the men.

It is also a fact that female chief executives are more likely than men to leave under pressure. A study from PwC shows that between 2003 and 2013, 38% of female CEOs were forced out of their jobs, compared with 27% of male chiefs. And Spencer Stuart, which analyzed the tenures of all CEOs who left their jobs between 2004 and the present, found that although the average age of a person assuming the top job was very similar—50 for women, 52 for men—the average tenure was significantly shorter for women: seven years vs. nine. Says Cook: “[Women] are more likely to be promoted in times of crisis, and because they are women, they experience a lot more pressure. When they are not able to turn their firm around, it’s a confirmation bias: They really don’t have what it takes. They couldn’t cut it. As former Intel president James puts it, “You’re a pioneer. You either get to the promised land or you die.”


It is a paradox for women, who often raise their hands for the toughest jobs because they feel pressure to prove themselves beyond any doubt. Are they, as a result, decreasing their chances of attaining the steady, hand-on-the-tiller CEO jobs that are easier to succeed in? When I mention the glass cliff to Mel Healey, who spent 25 years rising through the ranks at Procter & Gamble (PG), ultimately running its $32 billion North America division before losing the CEO role to David Taylor, she chuckles knowingly. “I don’t think there has been one job in my career at any company where it wasn’t a turnaround, and I was told that from day one,” she says.

As senior women take on these challenges and succeed, they become known as crisis experts, which means their skills may not seem optimal to lead a smoothly functioning operation. Sallie Krawcheck is one of those rare women who not only landed a large corporate job but managed to get several more. After being CEO of Sanford Bernstein, she went to Citigroup (C), where she first ran Smith Barney and later became CFO of the parent company. Then, after being fired, she went to Bank of America (BAC), where she headed up the Merrill Lynch wealth management business. “I was three times on the glass cliff,” Krawcheck says, pointing out that her reputation as someone who could turn around a troubled business meant that those were the only kinds of roles she was offered. “I said [to the recruiters], ‘Did you guys share the same script?’ ”

Adding to the pressure is the rise of shareholder activism, which has made the job harder for all CEOs—but, as a new study from Arizona State’s Carey School of Business shows, more so for women. The study, under advanced review for publication, shows that female heads of large companies have a 27% chance of tussling with an activist at some point. For male CEOs, the chance is less than 1%.

Do (almost exclusively male) activists believe that it’s easier to get women CEOs to bow to pressure? Or is it that they zero in on companies that are already struggling and thus more likely to have women at the helm? Some of the most visible targets of activists in the past two years were DuPont (run by Ellen Kullman until she abruptly resigned in 2015), Mondelez (led by Irene Rosenfeld), and PepsiCo (Indra Nooyi).

This is not to say that women don’t fail for the same reasons that men do. Nor do all women on glass cliffs slip off of them. Mary Barra, who ranks No. 1 in this year’s assemblage of Most Powerful Women, is a shining example of success against steep odds (click here for more). Days after she took over as CEO in January 2014, General Motors (GM) announced an enormous and damaging recall of 2.6 million cars. Barra’s cool leadership and willingness to admit mistakes stabilized GM and led it to record earnings. There are outsider CEO success stories as well, such as Meg Whitman, who came to eBay from Hasbro and then moved to Hewlett-Packard, and Mary Dillon, CEO of Ulta Beauty (ULTA), who has hopscotched ably across industries. She rose to global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s (MCD) before becoming CEO of U.S. Cellular, then went to Ulta, where she has outperformed almost every one of her retail peers. Some, obviously, survive the glass cliff. But it remains very real.

There is sometimes a double standard for female executives, and it isn’t always negative. The media (and we at Fortune are not immune) love a fresh face, an unexpected story. That means that a female leader—especially a youngish, attractive one—is far more likely to get media coverage than your average white, bald AARP member. Says Krawcheck, who was a Fortune cover subject as “the last honest analyst” in 2002: “I wouldn’t have been on the cover of Fortune if we hadn’t had a very different strategy from the rest of Wall Street, nor would I likely have been on the cover if I had been a middle-aged guy with hair growing out of my ears.”

The positive attention can make it easier to marshal energy and attract investors. But there is a flip side, which is that women face extra scrutiny. Case in point: Marissa Mayer, who graced Fortune’s cover twice in three years and was the subject of endless fascination (She’s young! She has babies while CEO! She wears designer clothes just like a celebrity!) despite the fact that she was the fifth CEO in five years to take a shot running a company (Yahoo) that had long ago lost its raison d’être. It was an underdog story. And everyone loves an underdog. Until she blows it.

Photograph by Stephanie Gonot for Fortune
Photograph by Stephanie Gonot for Fortune

It is fair to argue, now that Yahoo is being sold for just $4.8 billion, that Mayer flopped. This does not make her failure any better or worse than those of her predecessors; she conceived a strategy, then did not manage to unify the company or its customers behind it. Still, the attention she received, on both the way up and the way down, was wildly out of proportion to the size and importance of her company.

It is unclear whether Mayer will—or should—land another large corporate role. If the past pattern holds, she may not. Just look at the 13 ­women who dropped off our 2014 list. One, Pat Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland, truly retired. Four others continued at their companies but were replaced on the list by other candidates. And of the others (all of whom are in their forties or fifties), Maureen Chiquet, former CEO of Chanel, left in January this year and so far has not resurfaced. James of Intel; Deb Henretta, formerly head of Asia for P&G; and former P&G exec Mel Healey work in private equity or consulting. Gail Boudreaux, once the executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group, is on the sidelines, waiting until her noncompete clause expires. Gisel Ruiz was taken out of an operating role at Walmart (WMT) and now runs human resources for its international unit. And Deirdre Connelly, former head of North America pharmaceuticals for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), left in 2015 and currently sits on one board, Macy’s (M). “I think in many cases women don’t get the rocket-ship CEO jobs,” says Dawn Lepore, former vice chairman at Charles Schwab (SCHW) and CEO of Drugstore.com. “Even if women have a successful outcome, it’s not at the same level. So it makes it harder to get another high-profile position.”

So you don’t make it to the top of your own company. Now what? As Renée James’s experience suggests, it’s not easy to move from even the presidency of a marquee company like Intel to a chief executive slot elsewhere. Citrin of Spencer Stuart explains the CEO selection process as a sort of Venn diagram, with successful candidates appearing in three overlapping circles: capability, credibility, and attractability. For women who have already risen to C-suite positions, capability is not the issue—they have the résumés to prove it. Attractability—the ability to persuade an executive to take the job—isn’t either. But when it comes to credibility, women have a disadvantage because so few of them have previously been CEOs. This may be why some 80% of current female CEOs are insiders.


Healey notes that after she left P&G with decades of experience running some of its most complex units, the phone rang—but not for CEO gigs. “Senior operating roles, yes,” she says. “[Large company] CEOs, no.” Healey is now launching her own leadership consulting business. Bartz got approached too—but only when she was already in the corner office. “When I was a sitting CEO, I took calls every week,” she says. “But there aren’t that many women. That’s how [boards] avoid being culpable.” She notes that the only two female CEOs to repeat at different large companies—herself and Whitman—have done so at tech companies, an industry in which failure and risk taking are considered a natural part of the process.

Contrast these experiences with those of the three male contenders to replace Jack Welch at GE back in 2000. After Jeff Immelt got the job, the other two executives, Robert Nardelli and James McNerney, were heralded as the most desirable hires in the country. Nardelli quickly landed the chief executive job at Home Depot (HD). (Seven years later he was forced out, then moved to Chrysler, where his tenure culminated in the company’s bankruptcy.) McNerney became head of 3M (MMM) and then moved to Boeing (BA), where he performed well.

It’s tough, of course, even for male executives who leave under pressure. Tough—but maybe not so tough. Mark Hurd, who, after being forced to resign in 2010 for violating the business-conduct rules as CEO of HP as part of a sexual-harassment scandal (Hurd denied wrongdoing), ended up as co-CEO of Oracle, along with a woman, Safra Catz. No woman who left under pressure has landed the CEO title at a large company.

There’s another potential explanation for at least some women’s inability to land the top jobs: Many remove themselves from the race. Some are fed up with the pressures and don’t want to work as hard for a brass ring that may never materialize. Others have extenuating circumstances such as illness or family-related complications. After selling Drugstore.com to Walgreens (WBA) in 2011, Lepore opted to remain in Seattle because it was best for her children. “To do this [CEO] job well,” she says, “it’s all-encompassing. I also think that men have set up their personal lives in such a way that they have the infrastructure and the ability to have that maniacal focus. Nobody’s asking them to take care of their aging parents, to handle the child with learning differences.”

Lepore has a point. When was the last time you heard of a male C-suite executive stepping down to help a sick relative, as Christi Shaw, U.S. country head at Novartis, did in May to help her sister fight cancer? Henretta, who ran P&G Asia, says she asked to come back to the U.S. because her mother was suffering from Stage 4 cancer. She was offered the struggling beauty business. Henretta headed it until 2014, then left P&G after it became clear that she was no longer in the running to lead the company and her mother’s condition worsened. Instead of seeking a CEO position, Henretta spent her mother’s last several months with her. She has no regrets.

Today Henretta is a senior adviser at consultancy SSA & Co. and says she enjoys it. But if another meaty CEO opportunity opened up? “If the perfect job in an industry I’m passionate about came along, I wouldn’t say no,” she says. “I ran a $20 billion business with a full P&L. If I could find another job that I liked as well, I would certainly consider it.”

Other women have simply had it with the unceasing pressure. “Do we have the tough skin to do it? Yes, we do,” says Healey, who also says she would be open to the right possibility. “The question is, Do we want to do it all over again? This is a question that men don’t tend to ask themselves because they haven’t been scrutinized like this.” Jan Fields, former president of McDonald’s USA, puts it more bluntly: “Sometimes women say, ‘I don’t need this shit.’ They’ve made a lot of money, and they say, ‘I don’t want to put myself out there any more.’ ”

So they go their own way. Krawcheck just launched her own business, Ellevest, an investing platform for women. “My view was that after seeing the movie twice, I didn’t want to do this again,” she says. “The only thing I was giving up was working for a CEO and having a big office and making money.”

Indeed, after a long career, money is rarely an issue. That was certainly true for Pat Curran, who started as an hourly worker in the pets department at Walmart in 1983, hoping to earn enough money to attend nursing school. Over the next 25 years she worked herself up to executive vice president of store operations. Her career was on a tear. She was named to Fortune’s MPW list in 2005.

But in 2009, at age 45, she gave it all up, to the shock of her fellow executives. “I wanted the second part of my life to be about service and giving,” Curran says. “Could I pursue my passion for the medical field and give back?” She enrolled in nursing school and today is a specialist in the newborn section at Mercy Hospital in Rogers, Ark. Curran works for free. “I was incredibly happy with my career,” she says. “At no point did I question whether it was the right place for me as a woman. But I don’t have any regrets. I tell my family and friends I would have done it sooner if I had realized how much joy it would give me.”

Curran is an outlier. Most executive women love their chosen field and want to continue in it. And as depressing as all the statistics about women CEOs are, there’s also reason for hope. Just read the profiles in this issue.

Part of the reason for optimism comes from the boardroom—which is, of course, the place where all those CEO decisions get made. Women now make up 21% of all board members of Fortune 500 companies. And 98% of companies have at least one female director, according to Spencer Stuart. This is good news—but not necessarily because female directors are more likely to choose women. They aren’t, says Ryan of the University of Exeter: Both sexes “have the same stereotypes about leadership.”

It’s because people with unconventional backgrounds are more likely to consider unconventional candidates, which may benefit those who have not previously been CEOs. Mary ­Minnick, a one-time CEO contender at Coca-Cola (KO) and a partner at Lion Capital in London, has served on several high-profile boards, including those of Target (TGT), Heineken, and WhiteWave. “No board likes to be in the headlines as having made a controversial choice,” she says. “As you drive toward consensus, you tend to drive toward the common, safe choice.” Which is usually not a woman, unless she is a longtime insider.

Having just one woman on a board, say many directors, is not enough to effect change. Citrin says the magic number is three. And Henretta, who serves on three boards, including Staples’, believes that the relative power on the board itself also makes a difference. If women do not head committees or serve as chairman, they are unlikely to have as much influence.

On that front, there’s good and bad news. Nearly 28% of the heads of the crucial nominating and governance committee of Fortune 500 companies are women, up from 14% in 2005, and audit and compensation committee chairs are 18.2% and 12.6% female, respectively. The numbers are more dismal when it comes to the most powerful position, the chairmanship: Only 30 women hold that title in Fortune 500 companies.

Groups have sprung up to identify more women candidates. There is the Boardlist, run by former Google (GOOGL) executive ­Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, and Women in the Boardroom, to name two. The goal: to counter the common complaint that there are not enough women executives available to consider. To borrow a phrase from a one-time presidential candidate, they are accumulating “binders full of women.” If they now can share these binders with boards that have significant female board membership, an optimist would say we might reach a tipping point. That point now seems visible—yet somehow still distant.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune.