Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Power in America

Diversity Among Fortune 500 CEOs from 2000 to 2020: White Women, Hi-Tech South Asians, and Economically Privileged Multilingual Immigrants from Around the World

by Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Guilford College

Posted November 2020

In 1963, Katherine Graham took over The Washington Post, the newspaper her father had founded, after her husband committed suicide. When the Washington Post made the Fortune 500 list in 1972 (it was #479), she became the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In 1981, when he became the CEO at Coca Cola (#56 on the list that year), Cuban-born Roberto Goizueta became the first Latino CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In 1986, Gerald Tsai, a Chinese American, became the CEO of American Can (#140 in 1986). Although Clifton Wharton, an African-American man, was the CEO of TIAA from 1987-1992, TIAA did not make the Fortune list until 1998, when he no longer was CEO. Therefore, it was not until 1999, when Franklin Raines became CEO of Fannie May (#26) and Lloyd Ward became CEO of Maytag (#379), that there were Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Since 2000, there have been 151 white women and people of color appointed CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. We have called them "The New CEOs" to emphasize that they are not, like the old CEOs, white males. But now, 20 years later, the New CEOs are not so new, and there are enough of them so that it is possible to step back and look at the patterns that have emerged over these two decades. That is what I plan to do in this report. As will be seen, some of the groups we have looked at have increased in numbers, whereas the numbers for others have remained stagnant. In some cases, the original groupings that we used decades ago no longer suffice, for now we can see that those born into some subgroups are much more likely than those born into others to become Fortune 500 CEOs. In addition, in this paper I'll compare these 151 New CEOs who have made it to the top of these giant, very hierarchical, corporations, with the similarly "new" members of Congress, the white women and people of color who have been elected to the Senate and the House. Are white women and people of color more likely to have made it to the top of the corporate world or through the electoral process?

The big picture: white men and everyone else

Before looking at the patterns for each of the groups who make up the New CEOs, it is helpful to keep the larger picture in mind by noting that it is still the case that almost 90% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are white males. As can be seen in Figure 1, the slow increase in New CEOs, from a total of 19 in 2000 to 71 in 2020, has been accompanied by a corresponding steady decrease in the number of white male CEOs. Still, the white men, who make up about 35% of the population, continue to be very much over-represented, and the gap between them and the New CEOs is still immense. White men may have lost power, but they continue to be the dominant group in the corporate elite — they held 96.4% of the Fortune 500 CEO positions in 2000, and they held 85.8% in 2020. Moreover, since most of the seats lost by white men were lost to white women, and white women make up 6.8% of those who are now CEOs, whites still make up 92.6% of the Fortune 500 CEOs. Only 1% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African-Americans, 2.4% are East Asians or South Asians, and 3.4% are Latinx.

Figure 1: White male CEOs and "New CEOs" in the Fortune 500, 2000-2020

Another metric that helps reveal the long-term patterns is the number of new Fortune 500 CEOs appointed each year (as opposed to the number who were in office in a given year). As can be seen in the far right column of Table 1, the number of white women and people of color appointed each year gradually increased to a peak in 2011, when there were 13, and then to another slightly higher peak in 2019, when there were 17. Whereas the 2011 peak was based on the appointments of five white women, one African-American, three Latinx, one East Asian and three South Asians, the peak in 2019 was largely the result of the appointments of white women: 10 were appointed that year, along with four Latinos, two African-Americans, and one South Asian. In 2020, 7 of the 10 new appointments were white women.

Table 1: New "New CEOs" (new appointments), by year, 2000-2020
 White womenAfrican AmericansLatinxEast AsiansSouth AsiansTOTAL
20182 0 310 6

A separate look at the New CEOs for each group reveals very different patterns between the groups, and in some cases, within the groups.

White women CEOs

As can be seen in Figure 2, which shows the number of women CEOs each year over this 20-year period, by far most of the new women CEOs have been white.

Figure 2: Women CEOs, 2000-2020

Of the 83 women who have been CEOs of Fortune 500 companies since 2000, 72 have been white women. There were twice as many white women Fortune 500 CEOs in 2020 as there were in 2010. Not counting the one interim appointment (Claire Babrowski at Radio Shack in 2007), and those who were still CEOs in 2020, the average length they were CEOs of Fortune-ranked companies was 6.1 years, with a range from 33 (Marian Sandler at Golden West from 1973 to 2006) to a few who lasted less than a year (Debra Crew at R. J. Reynolds in 2017, and Melissa Miller at Alliance Data Systems in 2019). Some have worked at the largest companies in the Fortune 500 (for example, Mary Barra, who has been CEO of General Motors since 2014, Carly Fiorina, who was CEO at Hewlett Packard from 1999-2005, and Virginia Rometty, CEO at IBM from 2012 through April 2020) and others at the smallest companies. The median ranking has been #275 which means there has been a slight tendency for the white women to have been at the smaller rather than the larger companies.

The white women who have been appointed since 2015 seem to be quite similar to the white women CEOs appointed before them: they are very well-educated, tend to be from privileged backgrounds, almost all are married and have children, and many were, or still are, athletes.

These 72 well-educated white women include many who have degrees from Ivy League schools (four from Harvard, three from Princeton, three from Penn), Stanford (five), Wellesley (three), and the University of Chicago (two), as well as many who attended the flagship state schools where they grew up (including the University of Texas in Austin, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the University of Washington in Seattle). Fully 28 (or 38%) have MBA degrees, five have JD degrees, and others have masters or PhD degrees.

Almost all of those for whom I could find information were, or had been, married, and most had children. Many are married to high-powered executive husbands, but notably, some have reported that their husbands gave up careers to take care of the children. For example, Mary Dillon, the CEO of Ulta since 2013, a company that made the Fortune list in 2018 (at #471), is married to a biochemist who quit his job to stay home and take care of their three children.

Also, notably, and certainly a sign that things not only have changed in the culture but in the corporate elite, in August 2018, the Board of Land O'Lakes (#212) announced the appointment of the first openly gay female Fortune 500 CEO, Beth Ford. Ford and her wife, Jill Schurtz (a West Point graduate, and a lawyer), are raising three teen-age daughters. With this appointment, Ford became the second openly gay Fortune 500 CEO, Tim Cook of Apple having been the first when he came out as a gay man in October 2014 (#5 in 2014, #4 in 2020) In April, 2019, James Fitterling became the third, and the first male board-appointed out CEO when he became CEO at Dow (#78 in 2020).

I was unable to obtain information about the class backgrounds for some of the white women CEOs in 2020, but for those I could I conclude that about two-thirds are from privileged or relatively privileged backgrounds where the parents were well-educated professionals, and in some cases, quite wealthy. That is, they were from the upper 15% of the class structure as defined by Dennis Gilbert in his book, The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 9th Edition.[1] The other one third were from middle- or working-class backgrounds.

Consider the five white women who first became CEOs of companies that appeared on the Fortune 2020 list (some were appointed in late 2019 or during 2020, and others had been CEOs for a while but their companies first made the list in 2020). All five were from privileged backgrounds. Carol Tome, UPS (#43), grew up in Jackson, Wyoming, where her father owned a bank. The father of Heyward Donegan, Rite Aid (#150) was an executive at IBM, and her mother became an Episcopalian priest when Heyward was 14. She attended the prestigious Hackley School and received her BA from UVA. Kristin Peck, Zoetis (#472) a Georgetown graduate with an MBA from Columbia, is the daughter of a media executive father and an interior decorator mother (her wedding announcement, like that of Heyward Donegan, appeared in the New York Times). Barbara Smith, CEO of Commercial Metals (#491), was one of nine children, but she reports that her grandfather and her father owned "several" businesses. Finally, Jennifer Johnson, CEO of Franklin Resources (#493) is the granddaughter of the founder of the company; her father was the CEO for many years, then her brother became CEO, and now she has succeeded her brother.

In our previous work, we noted that very few of the first wave of women CEOs, who went to high school and college before Title IX was adopted in 1972, indicated that they had played competitive sports. In fact, the most frequent topic related to sports for the first wave of women CEOs was the complaint that they, unlike the white men they worked with, had not grown up playing golf and either had to learn to play or risk missing out on the benefits that accrued from the business-related interactions that took place on the golf course. The next wave of women included more who had played sports in high school and some who had played in college. In interviews, these women often emphasized how important being on teams had been for their development as leaders. Now, like those in that second wave, many of the women in this newest group make clear that having been on teams, or at least being fit, is important to them. Some report that they get up at 5 in the morning to get a run in before their long day begins. A few mention that they love scuba diving and at least one is a "certified" scuba diver (Tricia Griffith, CEO of Progressive, #86 in 2020). Many are runners, and at least one has completed numerous triathlons (Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis, #472 in 2020). Some were college athletes. For example, Christine Leahy, CEO of CDW (#178 in 2020), played lacrosse and field hockey at Brown, and 6'2" Gail Boudreaux, the CEO of Anthem (#29), was an all all-Ivy League basketball player three years in a row at Dartmouth and won four straight Ivy League shot put titles.

African-American, Latinx, and Asian-American CEOs

As can be seen in Figure 3, the patterns have been quite different for African-American, Asian-American, and Latinx CEOs.

Figure 3: Women, African-American, Asian-American, and Latinx CEOs, 2000-2020

African-American CEOs

African-American men

The most striking feature of the line in Figure 3 for African-Americans is how flat it is. There were five African-American CEOs in 2004, and there were five in 2020. There had been as many as seven for a few years, and the number dipped to three and four in some years.

In all, 20 African-Americans were Fortune 500 CEOs between 2000 and 2020, 18 men and two women (neither of whom was still in office in 2020). The African-American CEO in office the longest was Kenneth Chenault, at American Express for 16 years, from 2001 through 2017 (#74 in 2001, #86 in 2017). Roger Ferguson, of TIAA-CREF, has been in that position since 2008, so he is in his twelfth year (#86 in 2008, #81 in 2020). One of the African-American men, James Bell at Boeing in 2005, was an interim appointment who served for less than a year (#25 in 2005). If we don't count Bell, the interim appointment, or the five African-Americans still in office in 2020, the 12 African-American male CEOs were in office for an average of 5.8 years (about the same as the white women), with a range from Chenault's 16 years to Lloyd Ward, who lasted at Maytag for a little over a year, from August 1999 through November 2000.

Unlike the other early New CEOs who broke Fortune 500 barriers by becoming the first woman CEO (Katharine Graham at the Washington Post), the first Latinx CEO (Roberto Goizueta at Coca Cola) and the first Asian-American CEO (Gerald Tsai at American Can), the first two African-American Fortune 500 CEOs, Franklin Raines, the CEO at Fannie Mae from 1999-2004, and Lloyd Ward, the CEO of Maytag from 1999-2000, grew up in working class families. Raines' father was a janitor, and Ward's father was at times a postman, at times a janitor, and he grew up in a small house with no running water.

Of the groups I have looked at, the 20 African-American CEOs are the least likely to have been born to privilege. The five African-American CEOs in office in 2020 reveal the varied socioeconomic backgrounds that can lead to these positions, but also the importance of education. Roger Ferguson Jr. became the CEO of TIAA-CREF in 2008 (it was #86 on the Fortune list that year). One of his grandfathers was an architect, his father was a cartologist in the U. S. Army, and his mother was a public school teacher. He went to the elite Washington prep school, Sidwell Friends, and then to Harvard, from which he received his BA, a JD, and a PhD (in economics). Kenneth Frazier became CEO of Merck in 2011 (#53 that year). His father was a janitor in Philadelphia. He received his BA from Penn State and went on to earn a JD from Harvard. Marvin Ellison became the CEO of J. C. Penney's in 2015 (#250), and then became the CEO of Lowe's in 2018 (#42). His parents were sharecroppers, and also gospel singers who recorded four albums. He received his BA from the University of Memphis, and an MBA from Emory.

René Jones became the CEO of M&T Bank in 2017 (#438). His father, an African-American sergeant in the U. S. Army who served under George Patton in World War II, met and married a Belgian woman. René, now 55, is the youngest of their six children. He grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, went to Boston College, and then earned an MBA from the University of Rochester.

Jide Zeitlin

Perhaps the most unusual story is that of Jide Zeitlin, who became the CEO of Tapestry in September 2019 (#485), but ten months later, in July 2020, he resigned abruptly. Olajide (Jide) Abayomi was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. His single mother commuted into Lagos to clean the house of Arnold Zeitlin, a journalist with the Associated Press, and his wife, Marian, whose father was the chair of the chemistry department at the University of Pittsburgh. Sometimes Jide's mother brought her little boy with her, and he hit it off with the Zeitlins' daughter who was about the same age. Arnold and Marian wanted their daughter to have someone to play with, and they liked Jide and saw how bright he was, so they suggested to Jide's biological mother that Jide live with them and attend the same school as their daughter. When, 18 months later, Arnold was posted to Pakistan, Arnold and Marian offered to take five-year-old Jide with them. They became his legal guardians, and later adopted him. After five years in Pakistan, and three years in the Philippines, Marian was accepted into a PhD program at MIT in biochemistry, and Jide moved with the family to Cambridge, MA. Then, in an educational trajectory that has worked for so many white CEOs who grew up in privileged backgrounds, he went to the elite Milton Academy, to Amherst College (from which he graduated magna cum laude with a double major in Economics and English), and then earned an MBA from Harvard. He worked for Goldman Sachs for 20 years, went on the Tapestry board in 2006, became chairman of the board in 2014, and became the CEO of that company in late 2019. Along the way, he was on the board at Milton, and on the board at Amherst College from 1993 to 2013 (he was the Chair of that board from 2005 to 2013). While at Harvard he met Tina Goldberg, they married, and have two children.

I know what you are wondering (well, as someone who has been studying Jews in the corporate elite for 40 years, I was wondering): is Jide Zeitlin Jewish? He is not. His father, Arnold, is Jewish, but his mother, Marian was not. That is, she was not Jewish when Jide was growing up — Arnold and Marian divorced in 1977 when Jide was 13 years old, and she later converted to Judaism. Therefore, ironically, both his parents are now Jewish, but he is not. What about the wife he met at Harvard, Tina Goldberg? Her name definitely sounds Jewish, and Goldberg is on the list of Distinctive Jewish Names that we have used in our research over the years to estimate the number of Jewish directors on Fortune 500 boards, but she is a false positive: her father was Jewish, but not a practicing Jew, and her mother was not Jewish. She was not raised as a Jew, nor have Jide and Tina raised their two sons as Jews.[2]

In July 2020, Zeitlin announced his immediate resignation as CEO and Chair of the Board at Tapestry. Some months earlier, the Board had begun an investigation based on an allegation about an inappropriate relationship he had with a woman a decade earlier. A reporter was soon to break a story about this affair, and Zeitlin decided to try to control the narrative by telling the story himself in a letter to the Board of Directors that he posted on LinkedIn. As he grew up, he explained in this letter, he had learned photography from some of the photographers who worked with his father when his father was a journalist for Associated Press. He spent a summer working in the AP photography department, and he continued to take photographs, and publish them under a pseudonym, even as he rose through the ranks as a banker at Goldman Sachs. In that capacity, using the alias of "James Green," he set up a studio and took photos of many women (it is alleged in the article that subsequently was published that some were nude photographs). He developed a relationship with one of those women. Ultimately, he revealed his actual identity to her, and the relationship ended. As he put it, "our relationship began and concluded 13 years ago, it had nothing to do with my role at Tapestry, and I did not use power, wealth, or position to further that relationship... I am the first person to acknowledge that I am human, for better and worse. I made a mistake in having a relationship with this woman and I dealt with that in my personal life at the time."[3]

African-American women

There have been only two African-American women CEOs of Fortune companies. The first was Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, from 2009 to 2016 (Xerox was #147 in 2009, and #150 in 2016). Burns grew up in the projects, the daughter of a single mother who took in ironing. She attended a Catholic high school, and received her BA in engineering from NYU. While a graduate student at Columbia, Burns participated in a summer internship for minorities at Xerox, and when she completed her degree she went to work for that company. She stayed with Xerox, working her way up through the management ranks.

The other African-American woman, Mary Winston, served as interim CEO of Bed Bath and Beyond for less than a year, from May 2019 through November 2019 (#258 in 2019). She received a BA from Wisconsin and an MBA from Northwestern.[4] She began her career as a CPA at Arthur Anderson and then became the chief financial officer at a number of major corporations. When she stepped down as CFO at Family Dollar, she decided, as she puts it, to "semi-retire." However, in response to a rebellion from activist investors at Bed Bath and Beyond who were unhappy with the performance of the company, she was one of five new independent members who agreed to go on that Board. Not long thereafter, the CEO announced that he was resigning as CEO and from the Board "immediately." Winston became the interim CEO. Seven months later, after the tenth straight quarter of declining sales, and the announcement that 60 stores were to be closed, the company hired an executive from Target to replace Winston. She remained on the Board.

Interestingly, although there have been relatively few African-American Fortune 500 CEOs, and the number at any given time has remained flat, a higher percentage of the African-American CEOs have been at larger rather than smaller Fortune 500 companies than any of the other groups in my sample. Fully 11 of the 20 African-American CEOs have been at companies in the top 100, including Franklin Raines, CEO at Fannie Mae from 1999-2004, Stanley O-Neal at Merrill Lynch from 2002-2007, Kenneth Chenault at American Express from 2001-2017, and Kenneth Frazier, CEO at Merck since 2011. The mean Fortune ranking for the 20 African-Americans was #188, and the median was #82, both of which were far lower than for any of the other groups.

Asian-American CEOs

We have learned over the years that our original category of Asian-Americans was far too encompassing. The immigrant groups from a wide range of Asian countries included under that label do not share a common language, national heritage, or immigration pattern. The term "Asian-American" first appeared in 1968 in an effort to develop pan-Asian organizations to resist discrimination and ensure a fair share of social services at the local level.[5] However, these different groups often remain wary of one another because of historic enmities between their native countries.

We have concluded that our use of the term "Asian-Americans" to include people from many cultural backgrounds was even more limited than we realized. Further research, and the unforeseen rise of new "Asian-American" groups, reveals that "South Asians," mostly from India, but also from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, should be analyzed separately. They have cultural backgrounds that are quite different from the "East Asians," the Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Korean Americans who were central to the Asian-American category that was created in the late 1960s and widely used for the next several decades.

There have been 35 men and women we are including in this umbrella term Asian-Americans who were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies between 2000 and 2020. Thirteen were East Asians and 22 were South Asians (mostly people whose background is Indian).

East Asians

The 13 East Asians include nine men and four women. Many of the men either founded, or co-founded, their companies. For example, Charles B. Wang, born in Shanghai in 1944, founded Computer Associates International in 1996, Jerry Yang, born in Taiwan in 1968, was the co-founder of Yahoo, Robert Huang, born in 1945 in Taiwan, founded Synnex, and Jen-Hsun ("Jensen") Huang, born in 1963 in Taiwan, founded Nvidia. Seven of the nine were born outside of the USA, and the other two were first-generation Japanese Americans born in this country.

It is very difficult to get information about the class backgrounds for some of them, so generalizations must be made with caution. A few, including two of those who founded or co-founded companies, Wang and Huang, came from privilege, and a few clearly came from poverty. Others, however, have revealed either no information or only bits and pieces.

The four East Asian women all have Chinese American backgrounds. Andrea Jung, a Chinese American born in Canada, was the CEO of Avon from 1999 through 2012 (Avon was #308 in 1999, and #234 in 2012). Laura Sen, a Chinese American born in the USA, was the CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club from 2009-2012 (#269 in 2009, #221 in 2012). Lisa Su, a Chinese American born in Taiwan, became the CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in 2014, and was still the CEO in 2020 (#474 in 2014, #448 in 2020). Finally, Joey Wat, who was born in southern China, became CEO of Yum China in 2018 (#397), and was still in office in 2020 (#361).

Three of the four women come from privileged or relatively privileged backgrounds. Jung's father was an architect, and her mother was chemical engineer (and a pianist). Su's father was a statistician and her mother an accountant. Sen's father was a highway engineer. Wat, however, grew up in real poverty. She was born in a small town in southeast China to a family with no education. Her father, whom she described to one interviewer as having "street smarts," had no formal education, and the family was unable to enroll her in school until she was seven.

None of the 13 East Asian CEOs has led a company in the top 100 (the East Asian CEO who led the highest-ranking Fortune company was Richard Hamada, CEO of Avnet from 2011 through 2016 — it was #132 in 2011, and #102 in 2016). The average rank for the East Asian CEOs was #326, and the median rank was #336.

South Asians

The 22 South Asian CEOs include 20 men and two women. Seventeen of the 20 men were born in India, one was born in Pakistan, one in Sri Lanka, and one was born to Indian parents in Kenya. Most did their undergraduate work abroad (seven at the elite Indian Institute of Technology) and then came to the USA for graduate work. They hold graduate degrees from Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, and Michigan, among other schools. Many are engineers with undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

A few did undergraduate work in the United States. For example, Vikram Pandit, the CEO at Citibank from 2007 through 2012 (#8 in 2007, #20 in 2012), holds BS and MA degrees (both in electrical engineering) and a PhD (in finance) from Columbia, and George Kurian, the CEO at Netapp since 2015 (#428 in 2015, #478 in 220), has a BA (in electrical engineering) from Princeton and an MBA from Stanford.

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsico from 2006 to 2018 was the first South Asian woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO (Pepsico was #63 in 2006, #45 in 2018). Born in Madras in 1955, she majored in physics, chemistry and mathematics at Madras Christian College. She then surprised her Brahmin parents by coming to the USA to study at the Yale School of Management (as she put it, "It was unheard of for a good, conservative, South Indian Brahmin girl to do this"),[6] and that led to jobs, first with the Boston Consulting Group, and then Motorola, before she went to work at Pepsico and began a climb through management ranks that led to the CEO office in 2006.

The other South Asian woman who has been a Fortune 500 CEO, Sonia Syngal, was born in India in 1971, but her parents moved to Canada when she was young, and then they relocated to the USA (I have not been able to find anything about her parents' education or careers, but the fact that they were able to emigrate to Canada suggests they were educated). She has a BA in mechanical engineering from Kettering University, and an MA from Stanford. After ten years with Sun Microsystems, and six years with Ford Motor Company, she went to work for Gap in 2014. After leading one of its companies, Old Navy, she became the CEO in March 2020 (#199 on the Fortune list).

Other than those currently in office, the average length of time as CEO for the South Asians who were CEOs of companies on the Fortune 500 list was 6.4 years. The longest time in office was Indra Nooyi, CEO at Pepsico for twelve years, and Rajiv Gupta, the CEO of Rohm and Haas, for ten years, from 1999-2009 (#409 in 1999, #281 in 2009). Six of the 20 South Asians have been CEOs of companies in the top 100, including Vikram Pandit, CEO at Citigroup from 2007-2012, Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft since 2014, and Sundar Pichal, CEO at Google since 2015. The average Fortune ranking for the South Asians has been 239, and the median ranking has been #242.

It is notable that of the 17 Asian-Americans who have become Fortune 500 CEOs since 2010, only 4 have been East Asian, and 11 have been South Asian. The trend clearly shows that over time there have been fewer East Asian CEOs and more South Asian CEOs. This led Jackson Lu, Richard Nisbet, and Michael Morris to write an article titled "Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States." In nine empirical studies, using a variety of methods and samples, they looked especially at three possible explanations for why this "bamboo ceiling" seemed to affect East Asians much more than South Asians. They concluded that one of the three, low assertiveness, but not the other two, prejudice against Asians, or the amount of motivation that they had, was the key reason for this difference. "These results suggest," the authors conclude, "that East Asians hit the bamboo ceiling because their low assertiveness is incongruent with American norms concerning how leaders should communicate. The bamboo ceiling is not an Asian issue, but an issue of cultural fit."[7]

Three more who don't fit the categories of East Asians or South Asians

There are three CEOs who are not East Asians or South Asians, but they are not white men — and their international backgrounds are both revealing and helpful as we seek to understand the pathways that lead to the CEO office. They are Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola from 2008-2017 (#83 in 2008, #64 in 2017), Nazzic Keene, who became the CEO of Science Application in 2020 (#466), and Dara Khosrowshahi, who became the CEO of Uber when it first made the Fortune list in 2020 (#228).

Muhtar Kent

Muhtar Kent is a Turkish American born in New York City when his father was the Turkish consul-general. He did his undergraduate work, and a master's degree, in England, served in the Turkish military, and in 1978 came to the United States where he lived with an uncle and went to work for Coca-Cola. By 1985 he was the general manager of Coca-Cola Turkey and Central Asia (living in Istanbul), by 1988 he was the vice president of Coca-Cola International (living in Vienna), and by 1995 he was general manager of Coca-Cola Amatil-Europe. He left Coca-Cola to work in Turkey for six years, and then returned in 2005 where he was responsible for all of Coke's operations outside North America. In 2008 he became the company's CEO. Turkey was not part of what is often called British India, and is not quite on the Asian subcontinent, but it is closer to India geographically than to our other, admittedly artificial, categories of African-Americans and Latinx.[8]

Nazzic Keene

Nazzic Keene took a much less traditional path to corporate power than Muhtar Kent. She was born in 1962 in Tripoli, Libya, to a Libyan father and a white American mother who had grown up in Tucson, Arizona. When she was eight, Moammar Ghadaffi's Free Officers' Movement overthrew the Libyan government in a coup d'etat. Her father stayed in Libya, and her mother took Nazzic and her two sisters back to Tucson. She helped her working mother raise her two younger sisters, and then she attended the University of Arizona where she majored in information technology in an emerging academic department called the Department of Management Information Systems. After putting herself through college, including work as a bartender, she took a job with Electronic Data Systems Corporation. She worked there for more than a decade, worked for Ernst and Young, and then was hired by American Management Systems. After various positions, mergers, and acquisitions, she emerged as the newly appointed CEO.[9]

Dara Khosrowshahi

Dara Khosrowshahi, like Muhtar Kent, is part of a small (but increasing) number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who grew up in what can be considered the "global elite." He was born in Iran to a very wealthy family that owned a diversified conglomerate that included pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food, distribution, packaging, trading, and various other services. In 1978, just before the Iranian Revolution, the family fled, first to France, and then to the USA. Like Hayward Donigan, the white woman who became CEO of Rite Aid in 2020, he attended the elite Hackley School in Westchester County outside of New York City (tuition in 2020: $44,000). After he earned a BA from Brown University, he worked for a decade or so as an investment banker, and then became the CEO of Expedia, an online travel and meta-search engine, and by 2016 he was one of the highest paid CEOs in the country (he also received more than $90 million in stock options that year). He became the CEO of Uber in 2017, a company that first made the Fortune 500 list in 2020. In the months leading to the November 2020 election, Uber successfully spent hundreds of millions of dollars to convince voters to overturn a California law that would have required the company to classify their drivers as employees instead of independent contractors.[10] This initiative may have a major impact in other states as part of the relentless and unremitting effort by corporate America against unions, a battle that has been waged since the nineteenth century.[11]

Latinx CEOs

There have been 41 Latinx CEOs of Fortune 500 companies since 2000: 39 men and two women. They differ from the white women and the African-American CEOs, but are similar to the Asian-American CEOs, in that many were born outside the United States, and many are bilingual or multilingual. Six were born in Spain, five in Cuba (three more were Cuban Americans born in the USA), three in Argentina, three in Mexico, two in Venezuela, two in Brazil, two in Puerto Rico; other countries of origin include Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Most speak both Spanish and English, and some emphasize in their biographical sketches that they speak more than two languages.

For example, just to name two of the more recent additions to the list, Antonio Neri, born in Argentina, who in 2018 succeeded Meg Whitman as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprises (#109), speaks English, Spanish, Dutch and Italian, and Ramon LaGarta, born in Spain, who in 2018 replaced Indra Nooyi at Pepsico (#41), speaks English, Spanish, French, German, and Greek. Their international origins, the fact that many have lived all over the world heading up countries or regions for multinational corporations, their ability to speak more than one language, and their general worldliness reminds us that the Fortune 500 are very much a part of a global economy. As is the case when Fortune boards choose Asian CEOs, when they choose Latinx CEOs they are likely to select men and women who have grown up in the global elite.

They are well-educated, with degrees from schools all over the world and from elite schools in the USA, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford and Georgia Tech. Fifteen have MBA degrees, four have PhD's (from Rice, UVA, Cal Tech, and the University of Valencia), two have law degrees, and one has a medical degree.

Although I was unable to ascertain the class background for many of the Latinx CEOs (some don't say, others were complicated by families who had to leave, or chose to leave, the country of origin), I estimate that about 60% were from privileged backgrounds, and the other 40% were either from middle or working class backgrounds. Among the privileged are those whose fathers founded the companies they now lead (for example, Joseph Molina was the CEO of Molina Healthcare from 2012 through 2017 [#156 in 2017], a company his father, a Mexican-American physician, had founded, and Jose Mas became the CEO of Mastech in 2018 [#428], a company his Cuban-American father founded). Others had fathers who were well-educated professionals, who owned businesses, or who were executives in large companies. The father of Cristobal Conde, the CEO of Sungard Data from 2002 to 2011 (#434), taught statistics at a university before the family had to flee Chile because of the military coup that overthrew Allende. Bernardo Hess, the Brazilian-born CEO of Kraft Heinz from 2015 through 2019 (#115), is the son of a father who was an executive with Bechtel and a mother who was a teacher. When asked who the important mentors have been in his life, Mauricio Gutierrez, who became the CEO of NRG in 2015 (#196 in 2015, #324 in 2020), said that he got the best advice from his father, who was the CEO of a company in Mexico (the advice: first listen to others, but then be willing to make a decision).

So, too, are there Latinx CEOs who appear to have had middle class backgrounds (their parents were in the military, were teachers, were secretaries or accountants) and among the Latino CEOs are some stories of dramatic journeys up the socioeconomic ladder. Carlos Rodriguez, the CEO of Automatic Data Processing since 2011 (#275 in 2011, #227 in 2020), was born in Cuba, and came to the USA when he was young. His father, who had no college degree, became a waiter, and his mother found work as a clerk at a trucking company. The father of Josue Robles, Jr. (the CEO of United Services Automobile Association from 2007 to 2015, #122 in 2015) came to the USA from Puerto Rico with only a fourth grade education and worked in steel mills for 35 years (Robles' mother had a ninth-grade education).

Excluding those who were still in their positions in 2020, the other 24 Latino CEOs were in their CEO jobs for an average of 5.7 years. The two longest-serving held their positions for 11 years: Paul Diaz, a Cuban-American lawyer who was the CEO of Kindred Health Care from 2004 to 2015, and George Paz, a Mexican American accountant who became the CEO of Express Scripts from 2005 to 2016. Six were CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, including LaGarta, Nooyi's replacement at Pepsico, Enrique Lores, who became CEO at Hewlett Packard (#55 — not to be confused with Hewlett Packard Enterprises, which was #109) in 2019, and Juan Luciano who became CEO at ADM in 2015 (#34 in 2015, #54 in 2020). The average Fortune ranking for the Latinx CEOs was 268, and the median ranking was #250.

Latina women CEOs

Geisha Williams

There have been only two Latina Fortune 500 CEOs, neither of whom was still in her CEO position in 2020.[12] The first was Cuban-born Geisha Williams, who became CEO at PG&E in March 2017 and held that position until the end of 2018 (#157 in 2017, #168 in 2018). Born in Cuba, her parents, initially Castro supporters, but then disillusioned and imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activities, were able to leave the country and move to Minnesota when she was five, and then to New Jersey. Her name then was Geisha Jimenez — the name Geisha came from a John Wayne movie that her parents liked, "The Barbarian and the Geisha." Her father, a welder, worked in a factory by day, washed dishes at night, and ultimately became part-owner of a supermarket. She was the first in her family to earn a college degree — she received her BA in industrial engineering from the University of Miami, and then an MBA from Nova Southeastern. When she graduated, she went to work for Florida Power and Light, and stayed with that company for 24 years. In 2007 she left to work at PG&E. Two weeks after she resigned as CEO, the company declared bankruptcy. Subsequently released papers revealed that despite the bankruptcy, and a $6.9 billion loss in revenue in 2018 (compared to a profit of $1.7 the previous year), she received a salary increase of 8.3% "tied to corporate performance," raising her salary for 2018 to $9.3 million.[13]

Cheryl Miller

The other Latina is Cheryl Miller, who became the CEO of Auto Nation in July 2019 (#154). Born in Puerto Rico, her mother was Puerto Rican and her father was an Anglo from New York; like many Latinas, and especially those with one Anglo parent, her appearance is that of a white woman. The family moved to Baltimore when she was young, and her father worked for the postal service. She went to James Madison University, where she got a degree in finance and business administration. She then worked for various companies in South Florida, joining AutoNation in 2009, and becoming its chief financial officer in 2014. In April 2020 she took a leave of absence for undisclosed health reasons. On July 14, 2020, she announced that she would not return as CEO, and resigned from the board as well. The press release provided no information about her medical condition, and through a spokesman she requested that the information remain confidential. Like Geisha Williams, and like so many CEOs who leave their jobs for one reason or another, she was given a nice parting gift, in her case a golden parachute of $5.4 million with the likelihood of additional bonuses as part of her severance.[14]

Just as it became clear that the distinction between East Asians and South Asians was important as we looked at pathways to the CEO office, so, too, does it appear that the umbrella term Latinx masks an important distinction. Those from the immigrant groups that made up the Latinx population in the United States — those Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, and those from other islands in the Caribbean — have had a very different experience than those born into elites in other countries, the Spaniards and those of Spanish descent who grew up wealthy in various South American countries (and, in terms of growing up wealthy, we could include many who fled Cuba in this group). Many of the Latinx Fortune 500 CEOs born outside the USA come from privilege, and therefore it is important to keep in mind the key variable of socio-economic class (even though it is often difficult to ascertain). If we take a closer look at those we consider part of the global elite, and also factor in those born in the USA but whose parents were from ruling class families in China or Cuba, then class background becomes even more apparent as a predictor of who makes it to the top of the corporate world.

So, too, is skin color important, especially for Latinx. As we showed in an empirical study that used the photographs of white, African-American, Asian-American, and Latinx CEOs, published as an appendix in The New CEOs, Kyle Riplinger and I found that college students rated the photos of the Latino Fortune 500 CEOs as much closer in skin color to the whites than to the Asians or African-Americans. Moreover, they were by far less likely to correctly identify the ethnicity of the Latinos than those in any of the other groups, frequently misperceiving them as white. That is, just as many Latinx CEOs probably see themselves as white, so, too, are they seen as white by others.[15]

There has been considerable debate and disagreement among scholars and political activists about what general name, if any, should be used to characterize a group whose main common heritage is the Spanish conquest and the Spanish language. The term Hispanic has been favored by some, especially on the East Coast; others prefer Latino, especially on the West Coast. More recently, many have adopted the term "Latinx" to acknowledge that not all people fall under the gender binary of male and female. As Ramon Gutierrez explains in an essay titled "What's in a Name? The History and Politics of Hispanic and Latino Panethnicities," whatever term is used, the label emerged as part of a concerted push for panethnicity, a process that brings together disparate people with shared experiences:

Immigrants and long-time residents hailing from such divergent places as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic began celebrating their unity as "Latinos" in the 1970s, just as persons from such distinct places as China, Japan, and Korea came to call themselves "Asian-Americans" in the United States. As new panethnic groups, they protested their marginalization and the toxic legacies of racism, militated for political recognition, and petitioned the state for compensatory remedies, demonstrating not only broader levels of interaction among their different national groups but also a heightened sense of oppositional consciousness in relation to the state.[16]

In a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center on Latino self-identification, however, it was found that only 20 percent of those in a national survey called themselves "Hispanic" or "Latino." The majority indicated that they thought of themselves as "Mexicans," "Puerto Ricans," "Cubans," or whatever their country of family origin.[17]

Conclusions: Whites and Third-Culture Kids

Fortune 500 CEOs: still white.

In June 2020, I spoke with a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was writing an article on the decline in the number of African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500 in recent years. I told her that slightly more than a decade earlier there had been as many as seven, but there were at that moment only four. A week or so after that interview, I came upon a June 2020 article that had appeared in Fortune Magazine which asserted that there were five, not four, Fortune 500 African-American CEOs.[18] I had missed one: René Jones, the CEO of M&T Bank (#462). When I looked for biographical information about him, I learned, as noted above, that he is biracial, with an African-American father who was in the military, and a Belgian mother. He is very light-skinned — based on his photograph alone I would not have spotted him as an African-American (nor would I have done so by his name, René).

René Jones

When I emailed the Wall Street Journal reporter to alert her to the error I had made, I also noticed that at the end of the Fortune magazine article there was a correction indicating that the author of that article also had initially missed that René Jones is black ("Correction: This story originally omitted the CEO of M&T Bank in its list of Black CEOs"). So, too, in late July, when Jide Zeitlin resigned as CEO of Tapestry, did the author of a July 22 New York Times article make the same mistake. At the end of that article the correction read as follows: "An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Black chief executive officers in the Fortune 500. There were five, not four."[19]

My point? Actually, there are a few things to consider, and perhaps learn from, when it comes to this error that two journalists at prestigious publications and I made. One is that it is hard to keep track of those we have called the New CEOs in part because the numbers are ever-changing, and in part because there now have been so many that it is not big news. When the first African-American Fortune 500 CEOs were appointed back in 1999, there was considerable media coverage. However, when René Jones was appointed in 2017, the 18th African-American Fortune 500 CEO since 2000, it was not so newsworthy, and therefore easier to miss.

Enrique Salem

Another consideration is that skin color may affect whether a person is perceived as not white. Enrique Salem, a Latino who was born in Colombia and was the CEO of Symantic from 2009 through 2012 (#391), told a reporter for Financial Times, "To be honest, most people can't tell I'm Hispanic."[20] Perhaps academics like me, various journalists, and others simply have missed that René Jones is African-American because he is so light-skinned.

The larger implication, however, has to do with the predominant whiteness of Fortune 500 CEOs. The graph in Figure 1 indicates that the number of white males has decreased from 96.4% in 2000 to 85.8% in 2020. However, as I have noted, if we were to include the 34 white women Fortune 500 CEOs in 2020 with the white men, then 92.6% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are white. And, if we add the men in our other categories who, like René Jones and Enrique Salem, appear to be white even though they are people of color (and some of whom may consider themselves to be white) — and some women of color, like Latina Cheryl Miller, whose father was a white New Yorker, or Nazzic Keene, whose mother was a white woman from Tucson, Arizona — then the percentage of white CEOs is even higher, and the percentage of CEOs "of color" is even lower.

Third culture kids and flexible immigrants

Before the turn of the century, and therefore before the flow of new Fortune 500 CEOs began, two social scientists put forth concepts that now may help us to predict future CEOs: "third culture kids" and the "flexible immigrant."

In the 1960s, Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist at Michigan State, used the term "third culture kids" to refer to the children of diplomats, missionaries, men in the military, and others who spent some time in their own home culture but, because of the nature of their parents' work, were raised in other cultures. Their multicultural and often multilingual upbringing provided them with certain advantages, especially when it came to functioning effectively in differing cultures.[21]

Then, in a 1999 book, Aihwa Ong, an anthropology professor at Berkeley, proposed that political upheavals and the emergence of global markets meant that transnationality is not detrimental to the nation-state, but that it has provided those she called "flexible immigrants" who could make valuable contributions.[22] Fifteen years later, in a book about the intense pressure applied by parents from privileged families to get their children into elite colleges, Lois Weis, Kristin Cipollone, and Heather Jenkins, applied the concept of flexible immigrants to elite boarding schools, arguing that international students from wealthy backgrounds in their home countries might be outsiders in some ways, but ultimately they fit into prep school culture because "they are fundamentally 'class insiders'" (p. 201-202).[23]

Now, looking at the patterns of the New CEOs over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that some flexible immigrants and third culture kids, especially those born to wealth and privilege in their home countries around the world, have emerged to lead multinational Fortune-level corporations. They not only bring global understanding and typically the ability to speak languages other than English, they are comfortable moving in elite circles in any country. Perhaps even more important in terms of rising to the very top of U. S. corporations, they share a class and educational background with the privileged white men who sit on the boards of Fortune 500 companies who appoint them as CEOs. As we have seen, some of the South Asian and Latino CEOs have lived in many countries, are multilingual, and have overseen corporate divisions in countries or regions around the world before emerging as members of their companies' leadership teams, and then as CEOs.

The concepts of third culture kids and flexible immigrants apply to many of the CEOs we have described, including Muhtar Kent, who was born in New York City to a Turkish ambassador, educated in England and then served in the Turkish military before his ascent through Coca-Cola's corporate hierarchy. So, too, do these concepts apply to Dara Khosrowshahi, whose wealthy family left Iran for France and then USA, who attended the Hackley School and then Brown and Harvard, or Nazzic Keene, who spent her first five years in Libya but then spent much of her childhood in Tucson, Arizona.

Most interestingly, these concepts also apply to Jide Zeitlin, who was born in Nigeria but was adopted by an American family, spent three years of his childhood in Pakistan and then five more in the Philippines, and then came with his new family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he attended the prestigious Milton Academy, went to Amherst, and did graduate work at Harvard. In 2016, in an article that I wrote which drew on these concepts of third culture kids and the flexible immigrant, I made what turned out to be a good prediction, when applied to Jide Zeitlin: "future black Americans who become CEOs might turn out to be immigrants from elite backgrounds in the West Indies or Africa."[24]

In September 2020, Citigroup announced that Jane Fraser, born in Scotland and educated at Cambridge University in England before attending the Harvard Business School, was to become their next CEO, starting in February 2021. The first woman to lead a big Wall Street bank, she, too is a flexible immigrant (and she is married to a flexible immigrant and a third culture kid, Alberto Piedra, Jr., a Cuban-born banker whose father left Havana in 1959 and became the U. S. ambassador to Guatemala, so he spent some of his childhood in Havana, some in Washington, D.C., and some in Guatemala).[25] If we were to look beyond the American-based companies in the Fortune 500, we would find even more flexible immigrants. Tidjane Thiam, for example, born to an elite family in Sierra Leone (his father was a journalist, a cabinet minister, and an ambassador), educated in Paris, and described by the New York Times as "a tall, reserved, bespectacled polyglot" was from March 2015 until February 2020 the CEO of Credit Suisse, "the only black executive in the top tier of banking."[26]

Ajay Banga has been the CEO at Mastercard since 2010. Born in India, he is the son of a general in the Indian army who moved around a lot during Banga's childhood. In a November 2020 interview in the New York Times, he describes what he considers the benefits of these many moves, and shows that the very same advantages that can be experienced by third culture kids and flexible immigrants can also occur for children whose families move a lot within their own countries:

Ajay Banga
I grew up moving city to city. Adults find it hard to move, but kids don't. In fact, moving frequently makes you flexible, quick to make friends, quick to adjust and adapt, allows you to glide between cultures and people. Because different parts of India are completely different cultures. The North is completely different from the East and the West. This is completely different than even in the South. The states are different. Languages are different. Dresses are different. Movies are different. The one thing it did for me more than anything else was this easy adaptability, the willingness to adjust and the willingness to just fit in, I think it's helped me in all my life.[27]

Comparisons with the U. S. Senate and House

Another way to place these findings about the number of New CEOs from 2000 through 2020 in larger context is to compare these data with other, similar data. In our larger project, in which we have looked at diversity in the power elite, we also have tracked diversity in the political elite, and this has included especially the executive branch, but also both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In Figures 4 and 5, below, I have graphed the percentages of women and African-American CEOs, Senators, and members of the House of Representatives (I have not done this for Latinos and Asian-Americans because so many of the CEOs in those two categories have been foreign-born; they would, however, show similar patterns). As can be seen in Figure 4, the gradual increase in the number of women CEOs is less impressive when compared with the higher percentages of women in the Senate and the House (neither of which has begun to approach gender equity).

Figure 4: Women CEOs, Women in the U.S. Senate, and Women in the U.S. House of Representatives, 2000-2020

The comparison between African-American CEOs and members of Congress during this same period, as seen in Figure 5, reminds us that in the Senate for the past two decades there has been only one or two African-Americans (there were three in 2013, but one, Mo Cowan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was a temporary appointment for only five months, from February 2013 through July 2013, and he was no longer in the Senate when Cory Booker won a special election to replace Frank Lautenberg in October 2013). So, too, has the number of African-American CEOs remained flat (between 2% and 3.5%). In the House, however, where individuals are elected by the residents in the districts in which they live, there has been a slow but steady climb, from slightly over 8% to 12%.

Figure 5: Black CEOs, Black members of the U.S. Senate, and Black members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 2000-2020

The November 2020 election did not lead to major changes in the patterns shown in Figures 4 and 5, though there was a marked increase in the number of Republican women elected to the House of Representatives (from 13 to 23). Although as I write this not all of the final counts are in, and eight races are still undecided, it appears that the number of women whose terms will begin in January 2021 will increase in the House from 101 in 2019 to at least 117 in 2021 (that is, from 23.2% to 27%) and in the Senate it will drop from 26 to 24.[28] There was an increase in the number of Blacks in the House, from 52 (or 12%) to at least 56 (12.9%), with one more race involving a Black candidate still to be decided in January. When Kamala Harris becomes Vice-President, the number of African Americans in the Senate will drop from three to two. However, there will be a run-off election in Georgia between Raphael Warnock, a Black man, and Kelly Loeffler, a white woman, so there will be either one more woman or one more African-American in the Senate.

What about the pipeline?

As part of the research for the 2011 edition of The New CEOs, we looked up the leadership teams of a sample of companies on the Fortune list, companies selected from throughout the Fortune 500, because we knew from previous research that the larger companies were more likely to have promoted diversity within their ranks than the smaller companies. The final sample of twenty-five companies included such well-known names as Bank of America, General Electric, MasterCard, Staples, Verizon, and Western Union.[29]

This process produced a sample of 307 senior executives. Not quite one in five (18.8%) were white women, 7.8% were Asians (mostly men), and 4.2% were Hispanic (mostly men). For African-Americans, the flow through the pipeline was indeed minimal, with only 2.6% (seven males, one female).

Furthermore, just as we had found previously that the larger corporations were more likely than smaller ones to have African-Americans on their boards of directors,[30] so too did we find that the largest companies were more likely to have black managers or executives at the highest levels. For companies in the top 100 and for companies ranked between 101 and 200, 4% of the executives on the leadership teams were black; for the companies ranked 201 to 300, the percentage dropped to 2.1%; for the companies ranked 301 to 400, the percentage dropped to 1.9%, and for the companies ranked 401 to 500 it dropped to 1.1%.[31]

In order to update this earlier work on the pipeline, I once again turned to the photos of the leadership teams of Fortune 500 companies. This time, I started by looking at the 22 companies in the top 25 that provided photos and biographical information. This yielded information on 240 people at 22 corporations. Then, because I suspected that larger companies were more likely to include diversity in their leadership teams, I looked at those executives in the companies ranked between #251 and #275 that included photos and biographical information. Again, this yielded information on 22 of these 25 companies, this time for 200 people. The results can be seen in Table 2, below.

As can be seen, the percentages remain quite small. The biggest increase, not surprisingly, was for white women, from 18.8% a decade or so ago to 23.2% in 2020, with a higher percentage in the larger companies (27%) than in the smaller ones (19%). African-Americans also showed a slight increase, from 2.6% to 3.2%, again with a higher percentage in the large companies. Asian-Americans, however, showed a decrease, from 7.8% to 6.4% (more South Asians than East Asians — we did not code for that in 2011), and Latinos showed a sharp drop from 4.2% to 1.4%.[32]

Table 2: Potential "New CEOs" in the Pipeline, 2011 and 2020
White women18.8%23.2%27.0%19.0%
— East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) 2.3%2.1%2.5%
— South Asian (Indians, etc.) 4.1%3.3%5.0%

The pipeline, therefore, does not provide encouragement. The increases for white women and African-Americans are quite small, and the decreases for Asian-Americans and Latinos indicate that the executive ranks right below the CEO continue to be filled mostly with white men.

And more: the glass cliff.

Neither the data in the twenty-year trends nor the data on who now is (or is not) in the pipeline to the CEO office provide reason for optimism, Adding to this grim perspective, some research indicates that women and men of color who ascend to CEO positions in the Fortune 500 are faced with even greater uphill odds than their white male counterparts. In 2004, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Hasslam, two British academics, coined the term "glass cliff" to refer to their findings that women who had been appointed as CEOs were more likely than men to have taken over companies that had experienced especially poor performances during the previous months. Since that time, many academics have explored this phenomenon, with mixed results. In one of the most comprehensive studies of what they call "glass cliff theory," Alison Cook and Christy Glass looked at all CEO transitions over a 15-year period. They found support for the "glass cliff" effect: women and men of color were significantly more likely than white men to have been appointed as CEOs at companies with weak performances. They concluded: "Minority leaders face challenges that begin at the point of promotion and go beyond underrepresentation. Unlike white men, they are more likely to be appointed to struggling firms, creating greater obstacles to successful leadership than their white male peers." And why do they accept these especially challenging jobs? Cook and Glass speculated that women and minorities are more likely to accept positions leading troubled companies because they see it as their only chance. They also found that when they were replaced, women and minority CEOs were especially likely to be replaced by white males (which they call the "savior effect").[33]

Cook and Glass found, as they expected, that the women and minorities in their sample had shorter tenures than the white male CEOs, by about 4 months on average, but these differences were not statistically significant. They suggested that their failure to find statistical significance was a result of their having included CEOs who had recently been appointed, and who therefore at the time of their research had very short tenures. They note that only two of the women and minority CEOs in their sample, but 24 of the white men, had been appointed in the previous year or so, and that this may have decreased the average tenure for both groups, but especially that of the white men.

I decided to look at this issue for those New CEOs who were chief executives of Fortune 500 companies between 2000 and 2020, but I did not include those who were still in their positions heading into 2021 (because their tenure was not over). I also did not include two outliers, founders of their companies, who were CEOs for 33 and 24 years, far longer than anyone else in the sample — Marion Sandler, co-founder of Golden West Financial, CEO from 1973 to 2006, and Charles Wang, the founder of Computer Associates International, from 1976 to 2000 (so he was CEO only for one year in the time frame I used).

As can be seen in Table 3, for the 42 white women who had been CEOs and stepped down by the end of 2020, the average tenure was 6.0 years. The averages were 4.8 years for the 16 African-American former CEOs, 6.4 for the 8 East Asian CEOs, and 7.1 for the 14 South Asian CEOs (I included the three who did not fall neatly into either East or South in this group for this analysis), and 5.7 for the 24 Latinx former CEOs, an overall average of 5.95 years.

Table 3: Mean tenure of "New CEOs"
 Average tenure in years[34]Average tenure in years, excluding interim CEOs
All Fortune 500 CEOs (n=500)6.9
White women CEOs (n=42)6.06.1 (1 interim excluded)
African-American CEOs (n=16)4.85.4 (2 interims excluded)
East Asian CEOs (n=8)6.4
South Asian CEOs (n=14)7.1
Latinx CEOs (n=24)5.75.9 (1 interim excluded)
All "New CEOs" (n=104)5.956.1 (4 interims excluded)

Only the South Asian CEOs in my sample had an average tenure longer than the average tenure for CEOs which, according to Fortune magazine, was 6.9 years in 2015. These data appear to provide additional support for the glass cliff theory: with the exception of the South Asians, the New CEOs, and especially the women and African-American CEOs, do not last as long in office as white male CEOs, and this may be a result of taking the leadership role in companies with bigger problems than those led by white males.[35] The averages for the Asian and the Latinx CEOs were perhaps higher than those for white women and African-Americans because either they or their fathers were more likely to have founded the companies they led.

Similarly, in a 2018 archival study of 4,951 CEOs across five decades that builds on glass cliff theory, Gundemir, Carton and Homan found that East Asian-American CEOs were much more likely than white male CEOs to be appointed during periods of decline.[36] Follow-up studies they performed indicated that evaluators perceived East Asian CEOs as more likely than white men to be self-sacrificing and believed that they were more likely to be effective in periods of decline than periods of success. Therefore, they assert, East Asians, like women, face the challenge of a glass cliff, but for different reasons: whereas women are perceived as more likely to be warm, more effective in managing people and in defusing conflict, East Asians are perceived as more likely to be self-sacrificing, and, as a result, more likely to promote within-group harmony and cooperation. Their findings, coupled with the findings discussed above by Lu, Nisbet, and Morris, help to explain the underlying reasons for an ongoing bamboo ceiling for East Asians.

Based then on the appointments of New CEOs from 2000 through 2020, based on the very small number of New CEOs in the pipeline leading to the CEO office, and based on the academic research that suggests that those New CEOs who are appointed face more daunting challenges than their white male counterparts, and that they have shorter tenures as CEOs than do their white male counterparts, I can only conclude that the future does not look bright when it comes to diversity among Fortune 500 CEOs. Among the relatively few who will emerge are men and women with multicultural backgrounds, who are multilingual, and who can move comfortably in the global elite.


[1] Dennis Gilbert. 2015. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 9th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[2] The information in this paragraph is from emails received from Arnold Zeitlin on July 12, 2020. For information on distinctive Jewish names, see Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff (2018), Diversity in the Power Elite, Ironies and Unfulfilled Promises (3rd Edition), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 23-24 and 233.

[3] Jide Zeitlin's letter posted on LinkedIn can be seen here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-story-jide-zeitlin/. See also: Sapna Maheshwari, 2020, "Tapestry CEO resigns, acknowledging past relationship," New York Times, July 21 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/21/business/tapestry-jide-zeitlin-resigns.html); and William Cohan, 2020, "The bizarre fall of the CEO of Coach and Kate Spade's Parent Company," Pro Publica, July 22 (https://www.propublica.org/article/the-bizarre-fall-of-the-ceo-of-coach-and-kate-spades-parent-company)

[4] I have not been able to ascertain what her family situation was before she went to Wisconsin (I have not found evidence of this in the material that has been written about her, and she has not responded to the email I sent her).

[5] Yen Le Espiritu. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[6] Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff. 2014. The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, ad Asian American Leaders of Fortune 600 Companies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 68.

[7] Jackson G. Lu, Richard E. Nisbet, and Michael W. Morris. 2020. Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, PNAS March 3, 117 (9) 4590-4600; first published February 18, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1918896117

[8] The British Raj, or the rule by the British Crown that lasted from 1858 to 1947, often called British India, included what is now considered India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma.

[9] Carten Cordell. 2019. "Nazzic Keene will soon lead the massive contractor she helped create," Washington Business Journal, June 28; https://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2019/06/28/nazzic-keene-will-soon-lead-the-massive-contractor.html

[10] Kari Paul and Julia Carrie Wong, 2020, "California Passes Prop 22 in a Major Victory for Uber and Lyft," The Guardian, November 4; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/04/california-election-voters-prop-22-uber-lyft

[11] Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff. 2014. The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), pp. 9-10; and G. William Domhoff, 2020, The Corporate Rich and the Power Elite in the Twentieth Century: How They Won, Why Liberals and Labor Lost (New York: Routledge), Chapters 1-5.

[12] At least one person claims that Ursula Burns should count as a Latina because her mother was Panamanian. See Raquel Reichard. 2019. "The Fortune 500 Just Lost its Second Latina CEO," Fierce Boss Ladies, January 16; https://fierce.wearemitu.com/fierce-boss-ladies/fortune-500-lost-second-latina-ceo-geisha-williams/

[13] Michael Hiltzik. 2019. "Ex-CEO Geisha Williams steered PG&E into bankruptcy, but still got a big raise," Los Angeles Times, April 29; https://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-pge-ceo-raise-20190429-story.html. Even with this hefty compensation package, Williams was paid much less than many other CEOs. In 2019, the compensation of the CEOs at the top 350 firms averaged $21.3 million, an increase of 14% from 2018. The CEO-to-regular-worker ratio increased from 293-1 to 320-1 (it was 21 to 1 in 1965, and 61-to-1 in 1989. See Lawrence Mishel and Jori Kandra, 2020. "CEO compensation surged 14% in 2019 to $21.3 million," Economic Policy Institute, August 18; https://epi.org/204513

[14] Matthew Arrojas. 2020. "AutoNation to pay millions in 'golden parachute' severance to former CEO," South Florida Business Journal, July 16; https://www.bizjournals.com/bizwomen/news/latest-news/2020/07/inside-cheryl-miller-s-golden-parachute-package.html?page=all

[15] Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2014, The New CEOs, pp. 62-63. See also: Richard L. Zweigenhaft and Kyle Riplinger. 2014. Baby-Faced and More: CEOs and Skin Color; and Appendix 2 in Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2014, The New CEOs, pp. 165-176.

[16] Ramon A. Gutierrez. 2016, "What's in a Name? The History and Politics of Hispanic and Latino Panethnicities," in The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-first Century Perspective, ed. Ramon A. Gutierrez and Tomas Almaguer (Oakland: University of California Press), 20-21.

[17] Rodolfo de la Garza, Louis De Sipio, F. Chris Garcia, John Garcia, and Angelo Falcon. 1992. Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview), 13-14. See also Suzanne Oboler, 1995, Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press); Renee Stepler and Anna Brown, 2016, Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States, Pew Research Center, April 19; and G. Christina Mora, 2014, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[18] Phil Wahba. 2020. "The number of black CEOs in the Fortune 500 remains very low," Fortune, June 1; https://fortune.com/2020/06/01/black-ceos-fortune-500-2020-african-american-business-leaders/

[19] Sapna Maheshwari. 2020. "Tapestry C.E.O. resigns, acknowledging past relationship," New York Times, July 21; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/21/business/tapestry-jide-zeitlin-resigns.html

[20] Emma Jacobs. 2010. 20 Questions: Enrique Salem. Financial Times, April 15.

[21] See, for example, Ruth Hill Useem, 1966, "The American Family in India," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 368 (1), 132-145; https://doi.org/10.1177/000271626636800113. And: Ruth Hill Useem and Richard D. Downie. 1976. Third-culture kids. Today's Education 65.3: 103-105.

[22] Aihwa Ong. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logic of Transnationality, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[23] Lois Weis, Kristin Cippoloni and Heather Jenkins. 2014. Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 201-202.

[24] Richard Zweigenhaft. 2016. "The rise and fall of diversity at the top: The appointments of Fortune 500 CEOs from 2005 through 2015," Who Rules America? website. https://whorulesamerica.ucsc.edu/power/rise_and_fall_of_diversity.html

[25] Emily Flitter and Anupreeta Das. 2020. "Citigroup's Fraser to Be the First Woman to Lead a Big Wall Street Bank," New York Times, September 10; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/10/business/citigroup-ceo-jane-fraser.html

[26] Kate Kelly. 2020. "The Short Tenure and Abrupt Ouster of Banking's Sole Black C.E.O.," New York Times, October 3; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/03/business/tidjane-thiam-credit-suisse.html

[27] David Gelles, 2020, "Corner Office: The CEO Who Promised There Would Be No Layoffs," New York Times, November 6; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/business/corner-office-ajay-banga-mastercard.html

[28] Sharon Austin, 2020, "A Record Number of women will serve in the 11th Congress, including at least 51 women of color," The Conversation, November 17.

[29] See Zweigenhaft and Domhoff. 2014. The New CEOs, p. 200 for the list of the 25 companies.

[30] Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff. 2006. Diversity in the Power Elite: How it Happened, Why it Matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 100-101.

[31] Zweigenhaft and Domhoff. 2014. The New CEOs, p. 137.

[32] These data are quite similar to those found in a Stanford Business School study of diversity in the C-Suites of Fortune 100 companies. See David F. Larcker and Brian Tayan (2020), "Diversity in the C-Suite: The Dismal State of Diversity Among Fortune 100 Senior Executives" (April 1). Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University Closer Look Series: Topics, Issues and Controversies in Corporate Governance No. CGRP-82, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3587498

[33] Alison Cook and Christy Glass. 2014. "Above the glass ceiling: When are women and racial/ethnic minorities promoted to CEO?" Strategic Management Journal, 35 (7), 1080-1089; https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2161

[34] Scott DeCarlo and Anne Vandermey. 2015. "The 14 longest-serving CEOs of the Fortune 500, Fortune, May 5; https://fortune.com/2015/05/05/14-longest-serving-ceos/

[35] Are these differences statistically significant? A one-sample t-test comparing the average tenure for the 104 New CEOs (5.95 years) with the average tenure of the Fortune 500 CEOs in 2015 (6.90 years) reveals that the difference is statistically significant (t=2.17, df=103, p<.03). If I not only omit the two outliers but also omit the four New CEOs whose appointments were interim (one white woman, two African Americans and a Latino), each of whom served for only for one or two years, the difference approaches but is not significant (t=1.73, df=99, p<.08).

[36] Seval Gündemir, Andrew M. Carton, and Astrid C. Homan. 2019. The impact of organizational performance on the emergence of Asian American leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2019, 104 (1), 107-122; https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000347.

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