In a world of men, these women CEOs prove success is blind to gender
In 2018, the share of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 list dropped by 25% (from 32 in 2017 to just 24). As Fortune noted then, the drop was due to a number of powerful women leaving their CEO jobs. This included Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez, Campbell Soup Co, CEO Denise Morrison, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman, Avon CEO Sheri McCoy, the veterans among others.
In a study of 1,000 largest corporations in the US across eight industries released earlier this year, a global consultancy firm Korn Ferry said women held 25% of the five critical C-suite positions. In 2018, it was marginally less - 23%.
Women mainly end-up holding only one C-suite position, that is- CHRO. Only 6% of CEO spots are held by women, according to the study, same as in 2018.
“In every industry we analysed, there’s a tremendous need for improvement to bring more women to the C-suite,” Jane Stevenson, the global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession Services noted. “The onus is on both women to seek out experiences that can help them lead and organisations to create an environment where women can succeed”, she added.
In contrast to common perception, there are more women CEO’s in the APAC region than in Europe or the Americas. In its 2015 research IRC India which has surveyed and interviewed CEOs from more than forty countries about the state of Women CEOs in their countries, revealed that in Asia and Australia women constitute 11.8% of CEOs, while in Europe and Americas this percentage is only 7.8%.
The champions of women leaders in business are countries like Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, where over a quarter of all CEOs are women, the study said.
Here are some of the biggest names in the global women CEO club (all are in the Fortune500 list) that are an excellent example to follow when battling the corporate world’s gender bias.
CEO of General Motors Mary Barra tops Fortune 500 list of women CEOs. When Barra took over as chief executive of General Motors in January 2014, after spending 33 years in the company, she became the first female head of an automobile manufacturer.
The 2008 recession that has pushed GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy was a serious test for Barra and the company has continued facing ups and downs.
Days after becoming a CEO Barra had to confront a serious crisis - an ignition switch malfunction in some of GM's car models from a decade prior lead to 124 deaths and 275 injuries and triggered a series of recalls.
In 2018, at New York Times DealBook Conference, Barra told the Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin that the experience changed her leadership style, and in turn, changed GM's culture. "I've become much more impatient about how we do things and how quickly we do things," she said.
Last one month has been another “testing time” for Bara as she tries to negotiate a deal with 50,000 GM union workers that are on strike for almost a month keeping GM factories in the US and other countries idled.
The union workers went on strike after Barra announced the automaker’s biggest layoff since its 2009 bankruptcy as GM wants to invest more in e-vehicles and hybrid cars. The plan announced by GM CEO in September includes shutting down of five North American factories, cutting 6000 hourly jobs in the US and Canada and offering buyout packages to about 18,000 salaried employees.
Virginia M. (Ginni) Rometty
Another example of a female CEO who has fought to transform one of the industry leaders when such transformation was needed as the most is IBM’s Ginni Rometty.
After stepping into CEO shoes in 2012, Ginni has led IBM through the most significant transformation in its history, the company’s official website says.
For years on, IBM was losing the game to Microsoft and other rising tech companies. It needed to reinvent itself, and Ginni led the path, transforming the company into the leader of the new era of artificial intelligence (AI), cloud technologies, blockchain, cybersecurity and quantum technologies.
Ginni has been very particular about ensuring that the new technologies are developed and deployed in an ethical way. IBM was the first, for example, to publish long-held principles of trust for AI, data responsibility and data transparency, the company notes.
The tech giant’s principles of diversity and inclusion have advanced under Ginni’s leadership. This includes extending parental leave and making it easier for women to return to the workforce through a “returnships” program with hands-on work experience in emerging technologies. Ginny was awarded the Catalyst Award in 2018 for advancing diversity and women's initiatives. IBM says it is the only tech company to have earned this recognition in the last 20 years.
In her interview with Walter Isaacson last year, she spoke about becoming what she is today by looking at her own mother.
“My mother – a single mother, raised all four of us. I was 16 at the time when my father left and left her – kind of left all of us – and she hadn’t had a college degree, didn’t have the skills to go back to work, no money, at times no food. And really, it was by watching my mom that I learned probably one of the most valuable lessons I take to work today, which is “Never let someone else define who you are, never.” And what my mom showed all of us by her actions after this had happened, she was no way going to be defined as single mom, someone on welfare, whatever it was. She went back to school. I had to help. I was the oldest. But she went back to school. She got a degree. She got a great job…. She never complained. She never cried. She just said this isn’t how this story is going to end, and don’t let someone else ever do this to you, and I think it’s true for companies, it’s true for people, it’s true for countries”.
CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, Pentagon's top weapons supplier and the 'most powerful woman in the world’, as she is often called, Marillyn Hewson is yet another example of a powerful leader in the sector historically, traditionally and, for some, even logically dominated by men.
Hewson joined Lockheed Martin over 35 years ago as an industrial engineer and over these years climbed to the top position inch by inch.
Earlier this year, TIME magazine identified Hewson as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”. In his note to her Time100 profile, Penny Pritzker, a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, said:
“Trained as an industrial engineer, and now, as CEO, in her 20th job at Lockheed Martin, she has doubled the company’s market cap and broken countless barriers in an industry long dominated by men”.
He reminded that Hewson, born in Kansas, had to help care for her siblings at a very young age after they lost their father to a heart attack. “She helped care for her siblings and took odd jobs to assist her single mother in paying the bills,” he wrote. Hewson, too, believes her mother’s resilience taught her “everything I needed to know about leadership.”
Co-CEO of the database software giant, Oracle, , Safra Catz is known and respected as an example of powerful still quiet leadership. Catz joined Oracle in 1999 as senior vice-president and soon was named an executive vice president. In 2001, company’s famous founder and (then) CEO, Larry Ellison, placed her on Oracle’s board. For several years, Cats served as interim and full-time CFO.
In September 2014, when Ellison announced she was stepping down, Safra Catz has been promoted to co-CEO of Oracle tolled the company with another co-CEO, Mark Hurd. While ability of Catz to work and grow in the shadow of Ellison’s big personality is often cited as a gift, it is all the more exciting to see how Catz will take up the opportunity of remaining the sole CEO of tech giant.
In September this year, Mark Hurd announced he was taking a leave of absence owing to health reasons. With Hurd’s departure, for now, Catz will become the sole CEO of Oracle.
One of the most cited quotes belonging to Catz is the one below:
“The most significant barrier to female leadership is the actual lack of females in leadership. The best advice I can give to women is to go out and start something, ideally their own businesses. If you can't see a path for leadership within your own company, go blaze a trail of your own”.
Now former CEO of PepsiCo - Indra Nooyi stepped down from the top position a year back, in October 2018. However, she established herself as one of the most powerful woman of colour in the male-dominated world of American business.
Nooyi joined PepsiCo in 1994 and rose through the ranks to become a senior vice-president and then CFO, negotiating the acquisition of Tropicana (1998) and Quaker Oats (2000), which helped PepsiCo establish itself in the growing healthy foods segment.
In 2006, she was announced PepsiCo’s first female CEO ever. However, her journey to the top position was far from smooth: soda consumption in America began declining rapidly in the mid-2000s due to growing concerns over rising obesity levels.
As soda sales were pushed down by 20%, PepsiCo’s market share started declining prompting the company to cut jobs and reduce investments in R&D. Nooyi then took a tough call to span the beverage giant. into a different direction, pivoting the company into healthier products while reviving soda sales.
Speaking at "Women in Leadership Panel" in New York in 2015, Nooyi revealed an interesting fact dating back to her childhood Madras (today - Chennai):
“Every night at the dinner table, my mother would ask us to write a speech about what we would do if we were president, chief minister, or prime minister—every day would be a different world leader she’d ask us to play. At the end of dinner, we had to give the speech, and she had to decide who she was going to vote for,” - Business Insider quoted Nooyi.
Her mother gave Nooyi and her sister Chandrika Tandon, who later became one of McKinsey's best-known dealmakers and Grammy-nominated musician, the confidence to be whatever they wanted to be. “That was an incredibly formative experience in my youth,” Nooyi said.