It’s 2021—Women Reaching The C-Suite Shouldn’t Be Historic

Women have demonstrated we are willing to do the work, to log the long hours, to make the sacrifices—but you can't lean into a door that's barred shut. The system has to change.

Headlines are touting 2021 as a banner year for women’s leadership in corporate America.

CVS Health is now the highest-ranking business ever run by a woman CEO, Karen Lynch, and Jane Fraser of Citigroup is the very first woman to run a major Wall Street bank.

For the first time in history, two Fortune 500 companies have Black women at the helm— Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA.

And, the big picture: This year, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time high of 41.

Forty-one out of 500 CEOs are women. That amounts to 8 percent. Should we be cheering—or should we be outraged?

This is not to detract from the accomplishments of those 41 women. Given the dismal statistics, just imagine what it took for them to climb that ladder rung by rung. And then consider what it took for Brewer and Brown Duckett to make it to that .4 percent.

The backdrop of this “progress” is a historical, steady increase in the number of women attending and graduating from college. Women have made up a majority of college-educated people in the U.S. for more than 40 years, and women of color are the most educated group in the country. More women than ever before are pursuing degrees in fields traditionally dominated by men.

But women’s opportunities to advance to high-level corporate management jobs doesn’t reflect their educational accomplishments (and it’s not even close). Shouldn’t we expect to see some correlation between education attainment and career advancement? After all, as a country, we urge women to go to college and promise that higher degrees are the ticket to higher paying jobs and a brighter future in a promising career.

We can’t deny the stark disparities. Women are earning degrees in business and finance and engineering and medicine and law, but they’re largely still barred from the C-suite. The question is, why?

The barriers to success are built into the system.

The roadblocks are pervasive, from the dearth of female mentors to the fact that those making hiring decisions are still white men to the onerous and antiquated policies that make it impossible for women with children to stay in the workplace and remain on a trajectory for leadership.

Women have demonstrated that we will do the work. We’ll go to school, we’ll get the degrees, we’ll graduate top in our class with all kinds of honors and accolades. We’ll log the long hours, we’ll make the sacrifices. But you can’t lean into a door that’s barred shut.

It is long past time for the system to change, for the people in power to address the structural barriers that are holding women back, exactly as they were built to.

Forty plus years after women began to outstrip men in earning college degrees, the percentage of women in the C-suite should be more like 50 percent, not eight.  And when it comes to Black women in particular, who comprise the most educated group in the country, the number sitting in the corner office should surely be greater than two.

Concrete steps toward real change

There are specific actions that companies—and CEOs in particular—can take to make it easier for women to advance in their organizations.

Here’s how to be part of the solution:

1. Go beyond basic mentoring programs and create an advocate program for women’s advancement. Mentors are important for showing professionals the ropes and helping them avoid pitfalls, while an advocate has the power to go to bat for women candidates—in the room where the decisions are made about assignments and promotions. Effective advocate programs use people in positions of power to champion women’s advancement.

2. Implement policies that reflect an environment that is warm and welcoming of women, particularly women who have or may have, in the future, children or aging parents to care for. The work-from-home period during Covid established that employees can be incredibly productive when they’re empowered with real flexibility in their schedules.

3. Fix the compensation gap. The data shows that in 2020, women made 82 cents for every dollar that white men made, working in comparable positions. Black women earned 63 cents. That disparity doesn’t disappear in the C-suite. Women might get the title, but they don’t get the pay. Leaders have to take an intentional approach stop the trend of devaluing women and make salaries, raises and bonuses equitable across organizations.

For real change to happen, men must be actively involved in these solutions. It’s time for corporate leaders to collaborate with people in the pipeline, to help shape the workforce in ways that we haven’t seen before.