Top 70 List Highlights Best Companies for Executive Women


Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek March 13, 2019

More women are CEOs, directors and leaders of big corporations—but there is definitely room for improvement. Some companies are making strides in that area. The National Association for Female Executives' (NAFE's) annual list of "Top 70 Companies for Executive Women" found:

  • Female representation among CEOs increased to 19 percent, up from 14 percent in 2018.
  • The percentage of women sitting on their company's boards of directors increased to 32 percent, up from 30 percent in 2018.
  • Female executives overseeing divisions worth more than $1 billion increased to 26 percent, up from 21 percent in 2018.

"There are still too few women serving as CEOs, managing large-asset portfolios and seated on boards of directors," said Subha V. Barry, president of Working Mother Media, "but the NAFE top companies are paving the way for the advancement of women."

NAFE is a division of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother magazine.

Top companies were determined from a survey of more than 200 questions that looked at female demographics at every level of an organization, with an emphasis on senior corporate roles, profit-and-loss (P&L) responsibility and the number of women among the top 20 percent of their organization's wage-earners.

Companies on the Top 70 list moved more women into P&L management and senior-executive roles compared to five years ago, NAFE found. In 2019, 26 percent of the top 70 companies had female executives with P&L responsibility. In 2015, it was 22 percent.

Top 10 companies from NAFE's list of 70 exhibited even more progress. That included having a higher percentage of formal sponsorships in 2019 than top 70 companies (80 percent versus 70 percent) and a higher percentage of female CEOs (30 percent versus 19 percent).

Making the List 

NAFE also looked at how many employees have access to, and use, organizational programs and policies that promote women's advancement, and how managers are trained to help women advance. Companies demonstrating effective best practices such as leadership development training, employee resource groups (ERGs), and mentorships and sponsorships advance to the top of the list.

The Women Leaders of Abbott, for example, is an ERG made up of mentoring circles of 10-15 people at the Abbott Park, Ill., health care company. Members meet with an executive leader for six to 12 months to learn P&L responsibilities, how to manage work/life balance and how to lead teams.

There is a strong correlation between formal sponsorship—having a senior leader advocate for a more junior protégé—and women's advancement, and formal sponsorship is more significant than mentoring for moving women into executive positions, NAFE found. 

Top Companies bar charts.jpg

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Organizational Leaders]

At New York City-based E&Y—a top 70 company for six consecutive years—women exhibiting high potential are groomed for advancement through the company's mentors-and-sponsors program. Participants are assigned to key clients, given leadership roles and paired with people who can identify other career opportunities. In 2017, more than one-third of its employees who were promoted to partner, principal, executive director or director were women.

The top companies also have CEOs and high-level leaders active in advancing women in the workplace and offer benefits such as flexible working arrangements.

Unilever, based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., provides a raft of family-friendly benefits. The global consumer goods company, which owns brands such as Pond's Cold Cream and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, offers extended paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, fertility support, adoption assistance, state-of-the-art mothers' rooms, free milk shipments for nursing mothers, and back-up child care options. It also encourages use of flexible schedules, remote work and job sharing.  

"In 2019, a woman's journey up the corporate ladder still differs from a man's, but the top companies stand out in their application of remedies," said Betty Spence, NAFE president, in a news release.

Pointing to companies on both lists, she noted that they are "models of how to progressively move women into senior roles as reflected in their strong representation in the leadership ranks."

Actions Your Organization Can Take

New research from the IBM Institute for Business Value and Oxford Economics found that "many organizations are not fully sold on the benefits of gender equality in leadership … [and] are over-relying on good intentions and applying a laissez-fair approach to diversity rather than applying the disciplined focus on operational execution they apply to other aspects of organizational performance."

The findings are based on a survey of 2,300 business leaders and nonmanagerial professionals from around the world.

IBM calls organizations that make advancing women into leadership roles a formal business priority "first movers" who:

  • Provide career development planning specific to women's needs. General Motors in Detroit, a top 70 company, launched a self-paced online learning program in 2017 that delivers monthly leadership skills lessons. More than 5,000 women registered for the program and in 2018 the automaker expanded the program to 36 modules with three different learning tracks—emerging leaders, people leaders and executive leadership.

  • Use the same metrics for men's and women's job performance evaluations, and apply them equitably.

  • Provide men and women with equal career opportunities. L'Oreal USA in New York City—a top 10 company—has three employee-driven think tanks focused on recruiting, retaining and advancing women in its executive ranks and those working in IT and other digital functions. It also hosts an annual executive offsite gathering to discuss developing women and promoting inclusion.

  • Work hard to create a culture that embraces women's leadership styles.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect