Lauren Hobart’s appointment to helm of Dick’s Sporting Goods brings number of women running Fortune 500 companies to a record

By Vanessa Fuhrams

In a year especially hard on many working women, the corporate world can hail one major milestone: A record 41 female CEOs are slated to be soon running Fortune 500 companies.

The Tuesday appointment of Lauren Hobart as the new chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. DKS -1.12% brings the number of women running the biggest U.S. corporations to a new—albeit still relatively small—high. The rising numbers partly reflect companies’ efforts in recent years to more systematically build a bench of senior female talent, particularly in the retail industry, executives and recruiters say.

More than in most sectors, women have made big strides in the senior ranks of retailers, getting promoted and recruited into roles that put them on the leadership track. When Ms. Hobart officially starts the job in February, at least 10 of the Fortune 500’s 41 female CEOs (barring any new appointments or departures) are expected to be running retail chains, including Kohl’s Corp.’s Michelle Gass, Rite Aid Corp.’s Heyward Donigan and CVS Health Corp.’s Karen Lynch, whose CEO appointment was also announced this month. Outside the Fortune 500, J.Crew Group said Tuesday it was replacing Jan Singer, who became its CEO in February, with another woman, longtime J.Crew executive Libby Wadle.

Ms. Hobart’s career path aligns with the more deliberate moves across some of the corporate world to put women into roles where they gain the broad operating experience needed to advance to the highest echelons. Joining Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2011 as its chief marketing officer, Ms. Hobart was a key driver in the launch of one of the retailer’s top private labels, Calia by Carrie Underwood. And as company president since 2017, she has led its e-commerce strategy.

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The retail industry has created more than its share of those leadership opportunities for women in part because it has gone through so much technological and competitive upheaval over the past decade, some executive recruiters say. That tumult has shaken up the traditional paths to the CEO job, which often required chief merchandising experience, says Jane Stevenson, who leads executive recruiter Korn Ferry’s global CEO-succession practice.

“It’s forced boards to think outside the box and to look at where opportunity is being created, and that has created an opportunity for women to shine,” she says. She points to Best Buy Co. CEO Corie Barry’s promotion to the top job last year from her chief finance role as another case in point.

Ms. Stevenson adds that the recent wave of female CEO appointments across industries, including Jane Fraser at Citigroup Inc. and Linda Rendle at Clorox Co. , is the result of a decade of grooming senior female executives and promoting them into C-suite roles that put them in the running for chief executive. “Companies are now harvesting those efforts, but you have to plant and cultivate the seeds to get the crop,” she says. “It takes two or three of those critical roles to be ready.”

Whether women’s gains at the top of the corporate world continue at the same pace post-pandemic is unclear, though. Women up and down the corporate ladder have borne a disproportionate share of the burden that has come from juggling work and online-schooling at home, data show. In a survey of more than 40,000 North American employees this summer, researchers at McKinsey & Co. and found one in four women were considering leaving or downshifting their careers because of the work-life crunch, compared with one in five men. Senior women were 1.5 times more likely than their male peers to think about slowing or pausing their careers, according to the study.

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Meanwhile, companies have indicated a more cautious approach to any changes at the helm, at least in the initial months of the pandemic. A new report from executive-recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles shows that between March 11—when Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic—and June 30, 31 new CEOs were appointed at 965 of the world’s largest public companies, compared with 66 CEO appointments in the five months before March 11. Of the 31, two were women— Allison Kirkby of Swedish telecom Telia Co. AB and United Parcel Service Inc.’s Carol Tomé —down from six in the pre-pandemic period.

Bonnie Gwin, co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’s global CEO & board practice, says that after the pandemic’s initial months, which saw a slowdown in leadership changes at big public companies, many are now taking a longer view in their succession planning. To thrive in a post-Covid era, “many companies are realizing it’s time they have to move away from group thinking and they need to diversify at every level,” says Ms. Gwin, who predicts more women and people of color will gain entry into major-company C-suites in 2021.


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