Women in C-suite decline for first time since 2005, study finds

Jeanne Sahadi, CNN | 4/5/2024, 12:34 p.m.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the percentage of women in the C-suite at publicly traded US companies …

For the first time in nearly two decades, the percentage of women in the C-suite at publicly traded US companies has dropped.

And growth in the percentage of women in senior corporate leadership roles overall barely budged from 2022 to 2023.

That’s according to a new report from S&P Global Market Intelligence, which studied gender parity data in regulatory documents and press releases for companies on the S&P Global Total Market Index.

“The growth in women’s representation among senior corporate positions, once a bright spot for gender parity, potentially faces an alarming turning point. Exponential growth over a decade is showing signs of losing momentum,” the S&P researchers wrote.

In 2023, women held just 11.8% of the roughly 15,000 C-suite roles assessed, down from 12.2% the year before, the study found. That’s the first time women have lost seats since 2005, the year S&P started measuring the data.

Meanwhile, the year-over-year growth rate in women’s representation in senior corporate roles overall was just 0.5%, the lowest rate recorded in more than a decade and well below the 1.2% average.

One possible contributing factor, the study suggests, is a waning focus on diversity and equity efforts. In analyzing what was said on earnings calls, researchers found “publicly traded firms are spending less time on diversity and inclusion.”

The peak of DEI mentions came in 2020 during the Covid pandemic. But the mentions of “diversity” and “inclusion” in 2023 fell to the lowest levels since 2012.

Gender parity goal imperiled

None of this is to say that there hasn’t been real progress in narrowing the gender gap since 2005.

“Across all [senior] roles, women held less than 8% of seats as recently as 2005; versus 22.3% in 2023. Representation among the highly coveted C-suite positions has been harder to gain, jumping only from 6.5% to 11.8% over the same period,” S&P’s study noted.

But given that women have been joining the workforce in droves for at least half a century, their share of top roles is still low.

If the growth rate remains below average going forward, the goal of reaching gender parity will be much farther out of reach. S&P estimates that forecasts for parity in senior roles could be pushed back by up to seven years to as late as 2042 relative to estimates from last year.

Making sure parity is reached sooner rather than later will require a concerted effort, the researchers suggest. “The 2023 figures show a decline in the growth rate of women’s representation across all senior roles and an unprecedented (over the study period) loss of seats in the highly coveted C-Suite. Such metrics should be monitored and considered, to ensure progress toward established goals.”