A Brief History of Female Fortune 500 CEOs

Key Takeaways:

  • Until 1972, there were no female Fortune 500 CEOs.
  • The first female of color was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 1999.
  • Understanding our history can help inform our present and shape our future.

March is Women’s History Month.  In light of its last day for 2021, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the history of women leading Fortune 500 companies. In the title of this post, I state the word “brief” because it’s a blog entry, so it’s short — but also because (as you will see) the history of women leading Fortune 500 companies isn’t very long! [1]

The Fortune 500 is a list of the top U.S.-based organizations (rated by total revenue) published in the magazine Fortune.  It was first published in 1955 and the label “Fortune 500” carries a lot of weight and prestige for organizations. It wasn’t until 1972 when the first female became a CEO of one of the companies on the list: Katherine Graham was named CEO of The Washington Post.  For 17 years, the top-rated organizations were all led by men; that’s a lot of companies for a long time!

A few years later, Marion Sandler became co-CEO (with her husband Herbert) of Golden West Financial, but it was over a decade later (1986) when Linda Wachner became the third Fortune 500 female CEO (she led Warnaco Group).  After this, it was another decade before a fourth woman was added to this list: Jill Barad, CEO of Mattel starting in 1997.  It was at this point that female Fortune 500 CEOs became more common; over two dozen female were named CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the years between 2000 and 2010.

Note that all of the female CEOs I have spoken about so far have been white women. It wasn’t until 1999 when an East-Asian female first was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Andrea Jung of Avon).  In 2006, the first South-Asian female was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Indra Nooyi of Pepsico), and the first African-American female was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009 (Ursula Burns of Xerox).

As of today, 37 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.  Although women are about 51% of the U.S. population, they currently only comprise about 7% of the list of those who lead Fortune 500 companies!

Why is it important to talk about women’s history?  When it comes to Fortune 500 leaders, it is telling to show just how recent and brief this history is. Twenty-five years ago, there had only ever been three female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.  And 20 years ago, there was only one female of color.  Many people believe that the climate for gender equality has advanced significantly in the current time — and it has. But 25 years is not that long ago, and those who are unaware of history may not realize how recent of a phenomenon this is. 

Related: Being aware of history can make us realize how far we still have to go. The first female to run a Fortune 500 company began the role 49 years ago.  Females have been sitting in the top leadership positions for almost a half-decade — and we still only have 7% representation of female in CEO positions?  We can do better.

On Lead Read Today, I have written extensively about the challenges women leaders face.  Many argue that in the past, females encountered sexism which prohibited them from climbing the leadership ladder.  Although this was the case in the past, sexism still exists (as I have written about), however it is often more pernicious and hard to pinpoint than before. Additionally, women as leaders face issues of not being seen as fitting the role as well as at times being set up for failure — all of which can be exacerbated by being one of few women in her work environment.  And as I have written about, females of color have even more challenges as leaders.

Therefore, as we reach the end of Women’s History Month 2021, let’s reflect back on our history and how it is affecting our present.  And let’s think about how it will shape our future — and how we can shape our future as well.



[1] Much of my research for today’s post was taken from this website; check it out for more information.



Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.