You Won’t Believe How Many All-Female CEO-CFO Duos Run The 500 Largest Public U.S. Companies

A new Forbes analysis of data from Equilar shows that just about whatever number you come up with, it’s probably too high.

When U.K.-based pharmaceutical giant GSK announced recently that it had poached Julie Brown from Burberry to serve as its new chief financial officer, headlines rejoiced. The coverage was focused on the fact that, in joining CEO Emma Walmsley in GSK’s C-suite, Brown was creating an all-female duo at the top of the company. In the corporate world, that’s a rarity.

But just how rare? To answer this question, Forbes turned its attention stateside and, thanks to the help of corporate data shop Equilar, looked at the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. companies by revenue. In this group, there are 43 female CEOs (less than 10%) and 78 female CFOs (16%). But when you look for all-female teams, the numbers drop to a very low level.


“That should not be a statistic that anybody is happy with,” Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass, who works with CFO Jill Timm, told Forbes.

It’s also a number that has barely budged in the past five years. Equilar  data shows the same 500 companies in 2017 had just a single all-female duo, at General Motors. Three is certainly an improvement over one, but as corporate governance expert Nell Minow puts it, “We call that change statistically insignificant.”

The other companies headed by women are Accenture (CEO Julie Sweet, CFO KC McClure) and Insight Enterprises (CEO Joyce Mullen, CFO Glynis Bryan). The list leaves off the twosomes atop Bed Bath & Beyond and Bath & Body Works because they include interim hirings. Of the 500 companies, 382 have male-male CEO-CFO combinations. Five years ago, that number was 418.

What could be the explanation?

Minow, who is a vice chair at shareholder activist firm ValueEdge Advisors, suggests that women are still seen as “other” in corporate America. “It wasn't that long ago that we would talk about board diversity and CEOs would say, ‘but we already have a woman on the board,’” she says.

When it comes to “othering,” the same goes for people of color, and it perpetuates the same vicious cycle: the fewer women and underrepresented people there are in positions of power, the less possible it looks to those on lower rungs of the corporate ladder that they, too, could one day have that job. Recent research from organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry found that high-achieving women don’t seek out C-suite roles frequently enough. “Lack of representation” was the single most common answer Forbes received in conversations with researchers and executives about why more women aren’t in the most powerful corporate positions.

“There was nobody like me,” says Bryan, the CFO of Insight Enterprises, a business-to-business tech company. Bryan, who is Black, says the message she got from female role models—“you can do anything you want to do”—got her through moments when systemic bias could have thwarted her.

Bryan has a story about doing major profit-and-loss deals as a junior executive at her former employer, at Ryder System, the transportation and logistics firm. When her then-boss called her into his office one day, Bryan thought she was being promoted. Instead, he told her that a white man was getting the job and he wanted her to train him.

“So at that point in time, you have to make a decision for your career, right?” Bryan says. “You decide: am I going to leave, am I going to be passive aggressive, or am I going to be the consummate professional, because I know that this job is going to be mine?” She chose door number three, and within a year, she did get the promotion. “Back then I didn't think about it as being female or Black even. But I think that when you face adversity, how you respond to that is an indication about how you’ll be successful in the future and give you the opportunity to actually get that next promotion.”

“This is not just about women mentoring women,” Gass says. “It’s also the responsibility of men in business to mentor women as well. Some of my early, most influential mentors were actually men.”

Bryan was eventually promoted to CFO of Ryder Transportation Services, Ryder’s largest business unit, before joining Insight Enterprises in 2007. When Mullen accepted Insight’s CEO position at the beginning of this year, she says it was in no small part because of Bryan’s presence.

At Kohl’s, it was CEO Gass who promoted Timm in 2019. Timm, who’s been at Kohl’s for 23 years, had served as a mentor to Gass. Yet both executives say the burden can’t only be on women to promote other women.

“This is not just about women mentoring women,” Gass says. “It’s also the responsibility of men in business to mentor women as well. Some of my early, most influential mentors were actually men.”

While Bryan, Mullen, Timm and Gass all identified mentorship and sponsorship as key stepping stones, that alone is not enough to fix the gender imbalance. In Korn Ferry’s research on female leaders, 70% of the CEOs interviewed said that companies need to provide women and underrepresented employees with development programs and leadership opportunities that can stretch their skills and give them the confidence to pursue higher positions. In practical terms, this means giving high-achieving female talent the power to make profit-and-loss decisions early in their careers. It also means that informal programs, like a board readiness initiative Mullen and Bryan help oversee at Insight, can be a useful tool for executives to not just retain talented employees, but make them better at their jobs.

To truly move the needle, the experts and executives interviewed for this piece said, America’s corporations need to move beyond one-off solutions. They also need to start interviewing more women for every senior role.

“There are plenty of very qualified women out there,” says Minow, the corporate governance expert. “Worse than that, there are plenty of men who are not doing good jobs and should be replaced.”