Study: CEO positions at top US firms are out of women's reach

28 September 2016 5 min. read

A new study reveals that 5% of CEO positions and 12% of CFO positions at the top 1,000 companies in the US are in the hands of women. Women make up 24% of the C-Suite across the surveyed companies, with most acquiring access by holding CHRO positions.

New analysis from Korn Ferry finds that women are very unlikely to rise to the top of US-based corporates, with few receiving C-suite roles compared to men – while strategy and key decision-making roles too are denied to them within the current business environment. The dearth of opportunities for women to be admitted into key decision-making positions may be not merely bad for the aspiring people, but also for business performance more generally. One study, for instance, found that a lack of female leaders at board level could be costing top companies in the US, UK and India up to $655 billion, while another recent report, by consultancy BCG, highlighted that diversity in general improves business performance across companies. Globally, a lack of female inclusion costs the economy up to $12 trillion.

Korn Ferry's research, conducted in June of this year, involved the largest 1,000 US-based companies by revenue, and provides a breakdown of C-suite titles held by women across six industries. The study highlights that, across all industries and positions, women have a long way to go to reach parity in the C-Suite – with just 24% of all positions currently in the hands of women, of which a strong bias goes towards HR and marketing related positions.

C-Suite positioning
The analysis highlights that women have the least traction in making it to the top of business itself, the CEO position. Across all companies surveyed, 5% have the tiller in the hands of a woman – unchanged since last year. The Life Sciences sector has the lowest number of women, with less than 1% of surveyed companies run by a female CEO, while the Consumer sector had the highest number of women active as CEO's, at 9%. The Energy sector comes in second place, at 6%, while Industrials comes in at below the average, at 4%. Korn Ferry Managing Principal Peggy Hazard, remarks on the statistics, “Study after study shows that diverse senior teams provide better corporate results. Having more women at the top is a priority for our clients. However, the needle is not moving as quickly as any of us would like to see.”

 Women in the C-Suite

Women performed marginally better at attaining control of the company money supply, with 12% of CFO positions, across the companies surveyed, in the hands of women. The Consumer sector, again, has the highest female representation, at 15%, while Energy, Financials and Life Sciences were all below average, at 10%, 9% and 9% respectively.

Remarking on the number of women in CFO roles, Bryan Proctor, Korn Ferry Global Financial Officer Practice Leader, remarks that barriers for female advancement to the top spot continue to be a result of fewer available critical opportunities to demonstrate leadership, such as international assignments and operational roles. He adds, “While the organisation is responsible for offering these career-advancing assignments and opportunities to high-potential females, we have found that qualified women who proactively seek out these roles and experiences are increasingly being recognised and rewarded.”

More room exists at the top for women Chief Information Officers (CIO), with around 19% of all positions in the hands of women. The largest number of women held CIO positions is found to be within the Energy industry, at 35%, while the lowest numbers were recorded for the Technology sector, at 11%. Life Sciences, here outperforms the average, with 22% of CIO positions in female hands.

The Chief Marketing Officer position, while higher than the CEO, CFO and CIO ratios, at 29% of all positions, remains relatively fragmented – with 11% of CMO positions at energy companies under female leadership compared to 39% for the position in Financials.

The one sector in which women do outperform men in numbers at the top is the CHRO. In total, 55% of positions at companies surveyed are in the hands of women. Financials and Technology perform particularly well, at 69% and 63% respectively, while the Life Sciences and Consumer sectors underperform, at 47% and 48% respectively. 

Joseph McCabe, Vice Chairman in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise, says, “In our research, we find that women rank higher on key competencies needed in the CHRO role such as collaboration and negotiation skills, the ability to balance multiple constituencies and an appreciation for the dynamics of the overall business. Interestingly other Korn Ferry research shows a distinct correlation between CEO and CHRO competencies, but women are still not making it to the very top spot at the rate they should.”

Companies actively seeking gender diversity in their organisation, and ultimately at their top, do so by monitoring their pipeline starting at entry level to leadership level, by hiring experienced women from outside to fill more senior roles and also by offering formal programmes to female staff. In the latter case, for instance, Mace recently launched its Women of the Future programme, and Gapgemini set up a female networking platform called TechFuture Women’s Network, among others.