GM’s New Boss Is a Woman, but the CEO Gender Gap Is Still Gaping

Even as Mary Barra takes over America's biggest car company, questions remain about whether progress has stalled for women at the top

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Paul Morigi / Getty Images

Mary Barra, General Motors' new CEO

Correction appended: Dec. 11, 2013

When Mary Barra takes the wheel at GM in January, she will become the boss of the biggest American company to have a female CEO. Definitely progress. But, boy, has it been slow.

The trend line for women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies looks pretty good on the surface. In the past 10 years, the number has more than quadrupled. In January, when Barra and Jacqueline Hinman (of the global engineering firm CH2M Hill) start their new jobs, 24 Fortune 500 companies will have a female CEO, up from six a decade ago. In 2011 alone, the number grew from 12 to 18.

No.of Fortune 500 Female CEOS
Data from Fortune and Catalyst

But actually, of course, that is still the very shallow end of the pool. Here is the growth in percentage of female representation in the upper echelons of corporate America since 2003.

Women in Charge
Data from Fortune and Catalyst

Those lines are dismayingly unsteep. And even with Barra, the percentage of Fortune 500 companies with a woman at the top doesn’t even crack 5%.

The lack of female leadership in the tip-top of corporate America has become something of a cause célèbre in recent years. Women have the education and the ability, so why don’t they get to the top? Many solutions have been offered, notably by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and management consultant turned presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in leadership, has even made available names of board-ready female executives for CEOs to peruse. (A bit like Romney’s binders, only from this century.)

Of course, it will help the cause if Barra does a kick-ass job, as we’re sure she will. (No pressure, mind.) Just as we’re sure that it has to be coincidence that on the same day that GM announces her ascension, the U.S. government finally divests itself of all its GM shares, right? Right?

An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Sheryl Sandberg. She is Facebook’s COO, not CEO.