A record number of 41 women are leading Fortune 500 companies today, according to Fortune's latest list.
And for the first time, two Black women — Roz Brewer from Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett from TIAA — are serving as CEOs at the same time. Additionally, Jane Fraser at Citi Group is making history as the first woman to helm a major U.S. bank, and Karen Lynch at CVS Health is making history as head of the highest-ranked Fortune 500 company ever led by a woman. The $268 billion health-care company ranks No. 4 on this year's list.
Previously, General Motors CEO Mary Barra held the title of the highest ranking woman on the Fortune 500 list when the automaker came in at No. 6 in 2014. Today, General Motors is ranked at No. 22.
Lynch, who previously served as Aetna president, took over as CEO of CVS Health in February. Shortly after her appointment, Brewer, a former Starbucks executive, stepped into her role as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in March. Both women, who are now leading two of the largest pharmacy store chains in the country, have played a critical role in helping to effectively roll out the Covid-19 vaccine.
In May, Duckett, a former JPMorgan Chase executive, joined Brewer as the only other Black women on the list when she took over as TIAA's new CEO after former CEO Roger Ferguson Jr. stepped down. Prior to Brewer and Duckett, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016, was the first and only Black woman to permanently head a Fortune 500 firm.
"We continue to see steady progress in the Fortune 500, with a handful of women and two [new] women of color being elevated into CEO roles," Lorraine Hariton, CEO of the global gender equality firm Catalyst tells CNBC Make It. But even with this progress, she says "there's more work to do."
With 41 women on the Fortune 500 list, women leaders hold just 8.1% of Fortune 500 CEO spots. The added diversity to this year's list, according to Fortune, occurred as a result of executive leadership changes at different companies, new businesses gaining revenue growth that meets the $5.37 billion threshold and older businesses falling off as a result of their revenue shrinking.
For example, Reshma Kewalramani at Vertext Pharmaceuticals joined the list with her company ranking at No. 448, Sheryl Palmer from Taylor Morrison Home joined the list at No. 452, and Nasdaq's Adena Friedman joined the list at No. 480. Mary Dillon of Ulta Beauty left the list as a result of her stepping down from her role this June and luxury lifestyle brand Tapestry, led by Joanne Crevoiserat, fell off the list, ranking at No. 528.
To continue to improve the slow, but steady progress of women in the C-suite, Hariton says establishing "clear targets and measurements to increase representation throughout the senior leadership and CEO pipelines" could be a solution.
Already, under Friedman's leadership, Nasdaq has proposed diversity mandates that will require listed companies to have at least two diverse board members, including one person who self-identifies as female and one person who self-identifies as an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ+. Nasdaq defines underrepresented minority as anyone who self-identifies as Black or African American; Hispanic or Latinx; Native American or Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; or Asian.
Burns, who has served on several corporate boards since leaving her position at Xerox, says although she was once against diversity targets, she now understands the need for them if corporate America doesn't make substantial improvements on its own.
"I've actually started to switch my thinking a little bit around targets," she said during an interview last year on CNBC's "Closing Bell." "I was totally against them and now I'm really starting to investigate and think about whether this would be helpful."
As one of just a handful of Black women to ever serve as a Fortune 500 CEO, Burns says the slow progress that's been made around gender and racial diversity puts corporate America at the last step of what she calls "voluntary compliance." She explains that if leaders don't improve this representation at a faster and more consistent rate then diversity targets could be the only answer.
"It would be a really sad state if we get there," Burns says. "But if we don't do it voluntarily soon, then I will be marching down the streets saying, 'Yes, we should do it.'"
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Don't miss: Ex-Xerox CEO Ursula Burns: Companies should ‘improve representation for women and for Blacks’ or be forced to meet targets
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