The Record-Breaking Number Of Women In CEO Jobs Is Still Pretty Pitiful

CREDIT: AP/Paul Sakuma

Safra Catz, left, with Larry Ellison

After former CEO Larry Ellison stepped down from his position at Oracle last week, the company announced two new co-CEOs: Safra Catz and Mark Hurd. Catz’s new role makes her the 25th current female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, which means women hold 5 percent of those positions, the highest level ever reached.

The research organization Catalyst, which tracks these numbers, told ThinkProgress that it has never been higher than 5 percent, although women once before briefly reached that share, when Barbara Rentler was appointed to CEO of Ross Stores on June 1, 2014. (A new Fortune list was released on June 2nd that changed changed the rankings and brought women’s share back to 4.8 percent.)

Even with the increase from Catz’s promotion, 5 percent is a very small share compared to women’s 47 percent share of the overall workforce and 38 percent share of management jobs. Women are rare in most of the top jobs, making up less than 15 percent of all executive officers at Fortune 500 companies.

“We are delighted to see a woman advance to a CEO role, particularly in the tech industry, where the barriers for women are significant,” Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, told ThinkProgress. “But the real celebration will come when appointing a woman CEO is no longer considered big news.”

Part of the problem is that women aren’t being groomed for the top roles. A majority of top ranking women who might vie for CEO are stuck in human resources, legal, and finance roles that don’t usually lead to the C-suite. Two-thirds of women on executive committees are in these support positions, and just 16 percent of those who report directly to the CEO are women.

They also face discrimination when they try to get ahead. Among the most ambitious and successful employees of both genders who use the same advancement tactics, men will be twice as likely to advance. Women also face a backlash when they act assertively at work, such as asking for promotions or better pay.

And it’s a tough slog for them if they do get promoted to the top. Women are much more likely to be picked for leadership roles when times are bad, such as when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors just ahead of its massive recalls. They are also more likely to end up forced out at the end of their tenures than men, which is what happened to many women in finance during the crisis. And even if they manage to have a successful run, one woman isn’t necessarily going to beget more gender equality, as women are penalized for promoting other women.

Yet bringing more women into leadership can be a smart move. Companies with female CEOs experience financial returns that beat the stock market and other indexes. Those with the best financial performance around the globe have more women in top executive positions.

Catz is now reported to be the highest-paid female executive after being the top-paid CFO of any gender. But not all women are so lucky. Female executives among the S&P 500 make 18 percent less than male ones, and women serving as CEO made just 80 percent of what men in that role did in 2013.