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Women’s share of executive jobs falls for first time in years, study finds

Women’s share of coveted executive roles dropped in 2023 for the first time in nearly two decades, according to a recently published report from researchers who see it as possibly an “alarming turning point” in the path toward gender parity in corporate America.

Female executives lost roughly 60 “C-suite” roles last year, a reversal after several years of slow but persistent growth, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Women now claim 11.8 percent of 15,000 chief executives, financial officers and other top roles at publicly traded U.S. companies, down from 12.2 percent the previous year, S&P said. It’s the first decline in that percentage since S&P started tracking this data in 2006.

“The growth in women’s representation among senior corporate positions, once a bright spot for gender parity, potentially faces an alarming turning point,” the report’s authors wrote. The change of trend is “surprising,” after a major surge in women’s C-suite representation in 2022, they noted.

“Growth no longer appears exponential,” the report states, adding that “a waning focus on diversity initiatives suggests a potential inflection point and calls our previous gender parity estimates into question.”

The stalling of women’s progress in the upper echelons of corporate America is “troubling,” said Ellen Kossek, professor of management at Purdue University. “We’re moving backward,” said Kossek, who was not involved in the S&P report.

Researchers behind the report didn’t name a clear reason for the drop-off in women’s representation in high-level executive roles, but other data suggests that the pipeline is narrow: S&P Global research published last month found that women hold less than 30 percent of revenue-generating management positions that can be a steppingstone to the C-suite.

S&P Global noted that the growth rate of women in senior leadership roles more broadly notched its lowest increase in more than 10 years in 2023, rising only 0.5 percent.

Women may be hired in entry-level roles, but not receive the same opportunities for development and promotion as men,” said Simone Phipps, a professor of management at Middle Georgia State University who was not involved with the S&P report. Organizations often “fail to nurture a supportive culture” that allows women to effectively balance work with their duties outside it, she said.

When women do hold C-suite positions, Phipps said, they tend to be “identified as support functions” such as chief human resource officer or chief diversity officer. Among core executive roles, she said, women are more likely to hold the title of chief marketing officer rather than jobs such as chief operating officer or chief financial officer.

“There are individuals with power who view certain roles (i.e., leadership roles) as more suitable for men and other roles (e.g., support roles) as more suitable for women,” Phipps said in comments emailed to The Washington Post. “This gender stereotyping that perpetuates the unfortunate glass ceiling must cease.”

The decline in the number of top female executives coincides with backlash to diversity, equity and inclusion policies in corporate America and beyond. After an explosion of support for DEI in 2020, the past year has seen a reversal as companies such as Starbucks, Nike and United Airlines face legal challenges to their policies.

Some companies have ditched chief diversity officers — a role commonly held by women of color — and others have axed internal teams dedicated to DEI and outsourced the work to consultants. Mentions of DEI on corporate earnings calls in 2023 tumbled to their lowest level since 2012, according to S&P Global.

S&P now projects that gender parity at the C-suite level for U.S. companies won’t happen until somewhere between 2055 to 2072. That’s five to seven years later than researchers had previously projected before the slowdown.

As recently as 2005, women held just 6.5 percent of C-suite positions, S&P Global’s data shows.

When women do make it to the very top, they don’t stay as long as their male counterparts. As of 2023, a little over 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO. But their tenures are often significantly shorter than their male counterparts, with women staying for 4.5 years on average compared with 7.2 years for men, according to reporting from Fortune.

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