• A Fortune 500 record. The latest Fortune 500 list—out this morning—sets a new record: as of June 1, 33 companies will be led by female CEOs—the highest total ever.
To be sure, that sum represents a disproportionately small share of the group as a whole; just 6.6%. But it also marks a considerable jump from last year’s total of 24, or 4.8%.
The uptick in female CEOs this year is largely the result of women being named chief executive in the last 12 months, such as Best Buy’s Corie Barry and Land O’Lakes’ Beth Ford. And two of the new additions—Williams-Sonoma CEO Laura Alber and Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su—have held their jobs for years, but they’re joining the club now because their companies have surpassed the Fortune 500’s revenue cut-off.
The relative barrage of new female CEO is a far cry from last year’s narrative, when the departure of high-profile chief executives—Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Meg Whitman, Mondelez’s Irene Rosenfeld, Campbell Soup’s Denise Morrison—pushed the count down to 24.
So what might be behind the dramatic one-year reversal? In a word: boards.
“We are seeing women and minorities on boards ticking up, and boards have a lot to do with who becomes CEOs,” Lorraine Hariton, CEO of nonprofit Catalyst, told me. Fifteen years ago, women accounted for 15.7% of board seats in the Fortune 500. Now, it’s 25.5%.
Christy Glass, a Utah State University professor who focuses on gender inequality, says her research with co-author Alison Cook “has shown that when boards are well-integrated with women, women are much more likely to be appointed CEOs.” The push for board diversity, she says, “may be paying off in terms of women appointed as CEOs.”
While the new Fortune 500 list marks a record for total number of female CEOs, it also continues a troubling trend: that so few of those chief executives are non-white women. Last year’s tally included PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, who’s Indian-American, and PG&E CEO Geisha Williams, who’s Latina. Both left their posts in recent months. Bed, Bath & Beyond’s Mary Winston is the first black woman to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO since Xerox’s Ursula Burns stepped down two-and-a-half years ago, though Winston is in an interim post.
Down the line, this problem may be helped by the board diversity push too, Glass says. “Our research suggests that when women lead companies at the board rank and as CEOs, they pay more attention to equality policies and practices. So one added bonus of the growth of women directors is that CEOs place more emphasis on recruiting, retaining, and advancing people of color.”
You can read my full story, which includes a list of all the female CEOs, here.