topSkip to main content

Women CEOs are leaving — and men are stepping in

Indra Nooyi

When the news of PepsiCo Inc. Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi’s stepping down reached my inbox, I had one thought: “There goes another one.”

In late May, when Fortune magazine listed the female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies, the news was already unacceptable. After reaching an all-time high of 32 in 2017, the number of women at the helm of the largest U.S. companies fell to 24. Among the women contributing to that year-over-year, 25-percent plunge were high-profile, departing CEOs Margo Gerogiadis of Mattel, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelēz International.

In the few weeks since the Fortune list was published, CEO Denise Morrison left The Campbell Soup Company, after seven years in the role, and Nooyi announced her departure from her 12-year gig. Nooyi’s October farewell will leave just two women of color as Fortune 500 chief executives: the first Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Geisha Williams of PG&E Corporation, and Joey Wat of Yum China, who was promoted to the role in March.

In each case, these female CEOs — indeed, in virtually all cases of women CEOs leaving — were succeeded by men. Mattel tapped board director Ynon Kreiz as CEO. Meg Whitman was replaced by HP executive Antonio Neri. Dirk Van de Put, CEO of McCain Foods, took over for Irene Rosenfeld.

In the case of Campbell Soup, board member and former Electrolux CEO Keith McLoughlin was named interim CEO; while COO Luca Mignini has been viewed by analysts as likely to be tapped for the top job. Stepping into the corner office at PepsiCo will be Global Operations Chief Ramon Laguarta, a 22-year veteran of the company.

All this begs the question: Why is the C-suite still so male and white? Last year Fortune analyzed data from 16 Fortune 500 companies and found 80 percent of their corporate leadership was men — 72 percent white men.

Why women leave

Earlier this year, the NEW Female Leadership Crisis report laid out an equally staggering statistic: in the retail and consumer goods companies studied, turnover at the senior, executive and C-suite level for women was nearly four times that of their male peers (26.9 percent to 7.3 percent).

The point: Not only are companies rapidly losing women from the C-suite, they’re losing women at the level directly below the C-suite, women who should be well-positioned to move up to CEO. Our report pinpointed four reasons for the vast difference in turnover rates: As women move up, they feel isolated, see more bias and favoritism than their male peers do, do not feel supported in their new roles and are challenged by work/life issues.

Until those issues are addressed, high-potential women will continue to leave — and the gender gap at senior levels will continue to widen.

Despite the odds, there are many women who possess the experience and leadership traits to succeed as CEOs of the country’s largest companies. I’m thinking women such as Procter & Gamble Group President, North America Carolyn Tastad; PepsiCo President of Global Foodservice Anne Fink; Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer; and Home Depot Executive Vice President of U.S. Stores Anne-Marie Campbell.

So, how do we advance women to senior positions and keep them in roles that lead to the corner office?

After interviewing 57 female CEOs, 41 from Fortune 1000 companies and 16 from large privately held companies, Korn Ferry recently offered a few strategies to build the pipeline of future female chief executives. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jane Edison Stevenson and Evelyn Orr advised companies to:

  • Identify potential early and offer women opportunities to broaden their skills through operating roles.
  • Illuminate the path to CEO through a process that includes sponsors, mentors and role models.
  • Ensure women in senior executive roles have sponsors who take a hands-on role in managing their career moves.
  • Articulate jobs in terms that engage women, instead of focusing on the title, experiences required and deliverables, which may not motivate all potential candidates. Women CEOs, they found, pursue — or invent — roles that leveraged their skills in a way that added value to the business, while advancing something that benefited the world, customers or employees.
  • Beware the “glass cliff” — giving women senior roles associated with a high risk of failure. Difficult situations can provide valuable lessons, Stevenson and Orr noted, but high-profile failures can end a career.

Talented women with the experience to lead are in our companies today. They may be ready now to step up — but are being undervalued or overlooked. Or they may not have had the development opportunities their male peers have had.

It’s time to change that.

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 12,000 members represent 850 companies and 115 corporate partners in 22 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.