In Major New Report, ‘Good News, Bad News’ For Women Executives

Women account for almost half of the U.S. labor force, but in 2021 they held just over one quarter of top positions at Fortune 100 companies, a major study has found

More than 20 years ago, Professor Peter Cappelli and his colleagues collected data on the demographics of the top executives at Fortune 100 companies. They used 1980 as a baseline and found that companies had made significant progress toward equal gender representation in the top roles in the two decades since.

That’s because, Cappelli says, the only way for women to go was up.

“In 1980, there were no women executives in the Fortune 100, at least at the level we were looking at,” Cappelli tells Poets&Quants.


Wharton’s Peter Capelli: There are more women in high-powered positions at the largest companies, but “not at the very top positions.”

Cappelli has taught at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for over 30 years as a professor of management and the director of the Center for Human Resources. In that time, he says, “social pressure” has pushed companies to hire more women for high-level positions. By the start of the 21st century, when Cappelli’s study began, just over 10% of the top executive positions at Fortune 100 companies were held by women.

That number increased to almost 18% by 2011, when the researchers collected new data and released an updated study.

Ten years later, Cappelli and his colleagues — Monika Hamori and Rocio Bonet, associate professors at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and Samidha Sambare, a research associate at Wharton’s Center for Human Resources — once again looked at current data and compared it to past decades. They published their findings in the MIT Sloan Management Review at the end of August.

A key takeaway: Women account for almost half of the U.S. labor force — yet in 2021, they held just over one quarter of top positions at Fortune 100 companies.

“The gap is still closing,” Cappelli said. But some of the indicators of progress toward equal gender representation increased slower in the last ten years than in decades prior. Some have even moved in the opposite direction. Cappelli said these new results begged the question, “Is this kind of diminishing returns?”


Since gender inequality in the business world became a topic of discussion, many companies have blamed the lack of gender diversity at the executive level on the “pipeline,” says Cappelli, who in addition to directing Wharton’s Center for Human Resources is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

These companies claimed increasing gender equality at the upper levels had to happen slowly because there weren’t enough women at the lower levels to promote to executives. Cappelli says his findings show that this “really is not the case.” He explains that companies are not bound by their pipelines, and many of the world’s biggest corporations decreased gender disparities at the executive level by looking beyond it.

“Women who were in executive roles had more often been hired in from outside,” Cappelli says. This is significant considering that the study looked at some of the largest companies in the world, ones that could hire from within if they chose. “It certainly is a sign they were trying to change,” he adds.

The study also found that, on average, Fortune 100 companies promoted women up through the ranks into executive roles more quickly than men. “This is a sign that the companies are trying to move things along faster,” he said.

Blaming pipeline for a lack of gender equality at the executive level is an argument Cappelli called “overrated.” “We can see the alternatives to just waiting,” he said, adding, “Our study shows that you could move the needle faster if you wanted to.”


Cappelli calls the 2021 findings “good news, bad news.” There are more women in high-powered positions at the largest companies, but “not at the very top positions.” Just 13% of these jobs — CEO, COO, and company president — were held by women in 2021.

“We expected to see more progress, I would say, particularly in the top roles,” Cappelli says. Of the women executives the study looked at, only 6% were at the highest leadership level. This number has remained stagnant since 2001. In fact, the 2021 statistic is 1% lower than it was 20 years earlier. There is little in the study’s findings to suggest this number will change much in the near future.

Women are in executive positions at the world’s biggest companies are distributed unevenly among types of leadership positions, as they have been for the last three decades. “There’s still some imbalances,” Cappelli says. His study found that over half of female executives at Forbes 100 companies in 2021 held “support roles,” overseeing departments such as human resources, finance, and legal. General manager positions — feeders for top tier positions like CEO — are still overwhelmingly dominated my men. At the companies the studies looked at, women make up only 20% of general manager positions, but account 62% of support functions.


With only numerical data, it’s hard to determine the root causes of these disparities, Cappelli says.

“What we don’t know is how much of this is the corporations themselves, and how much of it might be career choices that individuals are making,” he says. Women may be more likely than men to pursue support functions rather than general manager positions, but these individual choices can still be influenced by gendered expectations and stereotypes. These can be perpetuated, often unconsciously, by the women themselves or by coworkers and mentors, Cappelli says.

He explains that if women working towards executive roles are receiving different information or being encouraged to take a different path than their male counterparts, this can impact where they end up once they reach the executive level.

Cappelli doesn’t attribute current disparities to explicit gender bias within companies. Instead, he says it’s a complex web of factors, including gendered stereotypes and barriers for women that people may be perpetuating without realizing it.

“Discrimination is difficult to tackle is, it’s human interaction,” he says, “it is across so many different dimensions. It’s hard to put your finger on one thing.”


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