Gender diversity setback seen in CEO successions

Bloomberg When Mondelez International Inc. said Wednesday that Chief Executive Officer Irene Rosenfeld was retiring, it was no surprise that the food company also announced that she would be succeeded by a man.

Since 2009, 19 female CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies have stepped down. In only three of those cases was she replaced by another woman, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Rosenfeld, 64, will retire in November and be succeeded by Dirk Van de Put, who currently leads McCain Foods.

“It underscores just how truly exceptional it is for a woman CEO to be succeeded by another woman,” said Brande Stellings, senior vice president of advisory services at Catalyst, which tracks diversity in companies. “Since we had the first woman CEO in the Fortune 500 in 1972, there’s only been 62 women CEOs in total, which is pretty staggering.”

Investors are putting pressure on company boards to improve lackluster diversity records, particularly this year, when State Street Corp. and BlackRock Inc. voted against hundreds of directors at companies seen as lagging on gender parity and other measures. McKinsey & Co. and other consultants are providing a growing body of research that indicates that companies that shift away from a monolithic white male leadership outperform those that haven’t changed their complexion. Still, most measures of diversity have been largely unchanged for a decade.

The direction a company takes on diversity comes from its board room, where white men have dominated since the last century. When choosing a new CEO, board members tend to rely more often on people they know than on executives selected by recruiters who screen candidates from a wider field, said Trina Gordon, CEO of executive-search firm Boyden. About 80 percent of S&P 500 directors are men.

“Boards are still not very diverse, and if you don’t have diversity at the governance level, there’s not a lot of changes that are going to happen,” Gordon said. 

Women, who make up about half of the U.S. work force, aren’t forecast to gain parity in the board room until 2032, according to a June estimate from executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles.

Debra Crew’s promotion to succeed Susan Cameron as CEO at Reynolds American Inc. earlier this year was the first female-to-female handover in the S&P 500 in five years, according to data from recruiter Spencer Stuart. The distinction was short-lived because even before she took the job, British American Tobacco Plc said it would buy Reynolds. Now Crew reports to BAT CEO Nicandro Durante.

Female chief executives are judged differently than men, another hurdle women face on the path to the C-suite, said Barbara Annis, founding partner of Gender Intelligence, a company that focuses on improving workplace gender relations. Research shows that women are judged on performance, while men are given opportunities based on their potential, she said. And when a woman is at the helm and a company performs poorly, frequently her gender is viewed as the reason.Speech

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