Last year’s Fortune 500 list included an all-time high number of female CEOs, with 32. That was still only 6.4 percent of all the CEOs on the list of the 500 highest-revenue U.S. companies, but it was significantly more than any previous year’s list.
The magazine just released this year’s Fortune 500 list, and the number of companies headed by women has actually fallen to 24—less than 5 percent.
What’s going on? Well, for starters, twelve of last year’s female CEOs have left their jobs in the past year. That’s more than 37 percent who retired, left when their companies were acquired, moved to different jobs, or were replaced. Among the 468 male CEOs leading last year’s Fortune 500 companies, only 47 (about 10 percent) left their positions, according to the New York Times.
The female CEO losses include veteran leaders Meg Whitman, who had been CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez (formerly a division of Kraft, which she also led before the company was split in 2012); and Avon CEO Sheri McCoy. All were replaced by men.
Some new women CEOs did join the list—Mary Dillon leads Ulta Beauty, which made the Fortune 500 for the first time and Kohl’s, Yum China, and Anthem all appointed female CEOs in the past year. But overall, the number of top companies with women in charge is roughly equivalent to the number led by men named John.
Women make up about 47 percent of the total workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but their representation numbers decrease at each step up the career ladder. Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on supporting women in workplaces, breaks down the numbers at the S&P 500 by job level and finds that while women are 37 percent of first- and mid-level managers, they’re only 27 percent of executive- and senior-level managers. When women do make it to the executive ranks, they’re much more likely to lead human resources departments than to have profit-and-loss roles—and people in such staff jobs almost never get promoted to CEO.
But why has the number of female chief executives fallen now, when the president and Republican leaders have put their disdain for women on display with attacks on reproductive freedom, pay equity, and programs that curb sexual assault in schools (among other issues)? (The Atlantic finds that Trump has named twice as many men as women to appointed positions throughout the administration.) We don’t know that the corporate ratio would be different if we’d elected a woman as the country’s chief executive in 2016, but one can’t help wondering.
The good news: Despite the feeling that women have to fight harder than ever for basic rights and respect (hello to the hundreds of women running for office and sharing #metoo stories), companies do seem aware of the many studies showing that more women in leadership lead to better business performance—they’re falling all over themselves to add women to their boards of directors. Jennifer Tejada, CEO of a company called PagerDuty, joined the executive board of cosmetics giant Estée Lauder last month and reported to Fortune that she gets calls about board positions “multiple times a month—sometimes multiple times a week.”
Among the companies on this year’s Fortune 500 list, only 12 have all-male boards, down from 42 five years ago. Women get the job done. And we will have a chance during the 2018 elections to hire a bunch more.