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How did Female Executives Fare During COVID?

Women have made unquestionable progress in the labor market over the past several decades. Driven by higher rates of education and increased labor market experience, women’s wages have surged both overall and relative to men. Since the 1970s, women’s inflation-adjusted wages have increased by 25 percent at the median and 70 percent for high-earners. When the original Superman Movie came out in 1978, women made less than 60 percent what men made. Now that every movie involves some flying person wearing tights, the gender pay gap sits at 80 percent. And, as I will show below, women have also made some halting progress into some of the highest paying jobs in the country — those in the C-Suite.

This progress — and its fragility — has been at the front of my mind during the COVID pandemic. After all, during the pandemic, women often took on extra caregiving responsibilities on top of their careers (and on top of their already high burden). How would a year and a half of disrupted school and childcare affect women’s labor market progress? In particular, would any damage be especially stark in some of the most demanding positions in the U.S. economy? Has women’s representation or pay in the C-Suite taken a hit relative to men’s during the Pandemic?

Luckily for me, I don’t need to wonder anymore! The Executive Compensation Database maintained by The Wharton School of Business has released its 2021 data (on the release day I threw a party, i.e., I ate ice cream by myself). This database contains data on the top-5 highest paid executives at S&P 1,500 companies — some of the biggest companies in the U.S. Usefully, the dataset identifies the gender and position of each executive. So, let’s have ourselves a look at how the representation of female executives fared during the pandemic.

Female Executives: Representation from the 1990s to COVID

Figure 1 shows the share of high-level C-Suite positions filled by female executives from 1992-2021.

Figure 1. Share of S & P 1,500 Executives that are Women, by Position

Note: The flag indicating CFO status was not available until 2006. Source: CompuStat Executive Compensation Data, 1992-2021. Accessed through Wharton Research Data Services.

The figure highlights three points. The first point is that women have made considerable progress in terms of CEO representation. In 1992, females represented just 0.2 percent (!) of CEOs at S&P 1,500 Companies. By 2021, the number had risen to 6.3 percent. For positions other than CEO, the increase was similarly large, from about 2 percent to 18 percent. The second point is that the pandemic did not seem to dent this progress. From 2019 to 2021, the share of female CEOs increased, as did the share of female executives in other positions.

Third, and finally, all this progress shouldn’t hide the fact that things still sort of suck. While the share of CEOs that are women increased 26-fold since 1992, 6.2 percent is still incredibly unequal. Especially when you consider that women represent about half of the labor force. The figure also shows that women are much more likely to be lower ranking executives than they are to be CEOs. 20 percent of these lower positions are occupied by women. So, to this day, women are underrepresented in the C-Suite. And, when women are represented, they tend to work in lower-ranking positions than men. The end result? Inequality in pay even at the top of the corporate food chain.

The C-Suite Pay Gap

The figure below shows the evolution of the pay gap among top-level executives from the 1990s through the pandemic. Similar to representation, the story is one of improvement but remaining inequality.

Figure 2. Total Compensation for Male and Female Executives from 1992-2021, 2021 Dollars

Source: CompuStat Executive Compensation Data, 1992-2021. Accessed through Wharton Research Data Services.

Since 1992, the gender pay gap (grey bars in the graph above) among high-level executives has closed substantially. In 1992, women in the C-Suite made 58 percent what men made. Today, the number is 82.1 percent (similar to the overall gender pay gap). And, once again, the pandemic doesn’t seem to have dented this progress. The gap closed further between 2019 and 2021. So, to the extent that the pandemic forced women into more caregiving work at home, it doesn’t seem to be showing itself in lower relative pay or representation in these high-level positions.

The data also highlight the importance of continued improvement in representation for closing the wage gap. Looking at the pay gap within the various positions shows that when women achieve the loftiest positions in a company, they are paid similarly to men. In 2021, female CEOs made 104 percent what their male counterparts made. Female CFOs made 101 percent. So, at the highest levels, women are paid equally. This fact means that the entire wage gap within the C-Suite is likely due to inequality in representation at the top, not differential pay once women get there. And, the finding highlights the importance of continued progress towards better female representation in the C-Suite, in whatever a post-COVID world looks like.

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