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Are Women Moving Up Beauty’s Corporate Ladder?

In the top 20 beauty manufacturers, women hold only 15 percent of CEO titles.

There are more women chief executive officers in beauty today than there ever have been, but at the world’s biggest beauty companies, men remain in charge. 

The incoming CEO of L’Oréal, the world’s biggest beauty company by sales, Nicolas Hieronimus, is male; Alan Jope, CEO of the second-largest beauty manufacturer, Unilever, is male; the CEO of the third-largest beauty manufacturer, the Estée Lauder Cos., Fabrizio Freda, is male. 

Of the top 20 beauty manufacturers, only three — 15 percent — are led by women CEOs. None are women of color.

In 2020, Sue Nabi, a trans woman, was appointed CEO at Coty Inc., the sixth largest beauty company, and Angela Cretu was named CEO of Avon Products, the 18th largest beauty manufacturer. Alex Keith has been CEO of P&G Beauty, the fourth largest beauty company, since 2019.

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That 15 percent figure represents progress from a few years ago. In 2018, when Beauty Inc looked into women CEO figures, only one of the top 20 beauty manufacturers was run by a woman — Debbie Perelman at Revlon. She still holds that position, though Revlon is no longer a top 20 beauty manufacturer. 

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There are women CEOs at smaller beauty companies, and at beauty retailers, too.

Annie Young-Scrivner was appointed CEO at newly formed Wella Co. in 2020. Cara Sabin is CEO of Sundial Brands. JuE Wong is leading fast-growing hair care business Olaplex. Founder Vicky Tsai is back in the CEO seat at skin care business Tatcha, following the departure of former CEO Jean-Marc Plisson. And Nicola Kilner is CEO at Lauder-owned Deciem. 

While Mary Dillon has been CEO of Ulta Beauty since 2014 and will remain in the position until June, her successor is a man — Dave Kimbell, who is currently president of Ulta. There’s also Roz Brewer, who started as Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO earlier this month, becoming one of two Black women leading a Fortune 500 company.

Beauty’s indie brand landscape is also host to countless female founder-CEO hybrids.

But at the highest levels of the industry, more progress needs to be made for women to reach parity.

According to Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst, the upper echelons of the beauty industry mimic the Fortune 500.

Pre-pandemic, women had reached parity in the entry-level workforce in the U.S., but the coronavirus has disproportionately affected women and set them back. In middle management positions, women represent around 25 percent to 30 percent of workers, Hariton said, and in the CEO seat at Fortune 500 companies, women make up 8 percent of leaders, up from 4.5 percent from when Hariton started the Catalyst job two and a half years ago.

“There are a lot of systemic issues that are still challenges for corporations to get closer to parity,” Hariton said, speaking about bias in the workplace.

The beauty industry should have a minimum of 50 percent women leaders, given the numbers of women in the workforce and the female dominant consumer base, Hariton said. “In the beauty industry, we should be at parity, because there’s certainly enough women at the bottom and the consumers are women,” she said.

“[Women] are the mass consumers of beauty products, and I don’t think consumers understand and know who’s actually at the top of these corporations,” said Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Externally facing, many beauty companies go above and beyond to relate to women, to pull them in, telegraphing messages of women’s empowerment,” Mason continued. “There’s a gap between what we as consumers understand and who is leading the companies.”

Some companies have outlined plans to increase representation and equity for women, including Lauder. The company said it will reach parity for Black women at all levels of the business in the U.S. by 2025, and that it will achieve gender parity on the board and in senior leadership positions globally by 2025. Currently, women make up 44 percent of Lauder’s board, and 55 percent of the executives at the vice president level and above are women.

Lauder also conducted a gender pay-gap analysis and found that women earn 98.2 percent of what men earn. The intention is to close that gap by 2023, the company said.

As companies look to progress toward parity, they will need to address systemic issues, including ensuring women are hired and promoted across different lines of business.

“Women have tended to end up in less of the line functions and more on the staff functions like HR and marketing and general counsel,” said Hariton. “There’s bias through the whole chain of processes.”

Women are affected by the “Goldilocks syndrome,” Hariton said, which often lands them in “caring roles” rather than leadership positions. And too often, men hire and promote “within their own image,” Hariton said, drawing from groups that lead to the hiring and promotion of more men.

Beauty companies should implement inclusive hiring and promoting practices, but also consider mentorship programs for women starting at the entry level, Hariton said, as well as provide training for managers. “The direct manager is who affects your early career progression, and if they have biases that are holding you back … that could affect people early on in their career. You need to build an inclusive culture at every level,” she said.

The lack of women in leadership positions is slightly less pronounced with smaller and mid-sized beauty companies.

“When you get to some of the smaller brands and mid-sized brands, some of the VC and private equity-backed businesses, you certainly will see a lot more women at the helm as CEO than you’re going to at the bigger companies,” said Lisa Marie Ringus, executive vice president for global client strategy and growth at recruitment agency 24 Seven. “That’s because there’s been more opportunity extended. Someone might have to wait for the right timing to step into the CEO position at a large company.”

Some of those jobs may not open up for a while. Hieronimus at L’Oréal was just recently appointed, for example. He is in his mid-fifties, and will have years to lead the L’Oréal business before mandated retirement at age 65. His predecessor, Jean-Paul Agon, has been CEO since 2006.

Shella Abe, co-head of the CEO/Board of Directors practice for beauty, fashion and retail at TrueSearch, has started to see demand for women leaders from mid-sized beauty brands.

“In the past year, year and a half, there is a huge mandate,” she said. “I’ve never had founders or investors or owner-entrepreneurs be so aggressive about hiring female leaders.”

But historically, women have not always been given those types of leadership opportunities, and the pool of women with the experience to step into the CEO role isn’t as big as it should be, Abe noted.

“It makes sense — they weren’t given the opportunities way back when. But if you and I are having this same conversation in five years, something is royally [messed] up,” Abe said.

Right now, women across industries, including beauty, have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We know from studies that women have taken on a huge burden of working from home, and caretaking for children, and homeschool and running their executives lines in a work-from-home environment,” Ringus said.

“How does that impact opportunities that might have been presented to them or in their hemisphere, and how has that affected women executives?” Ringus posed.

Now, companies are tasked not only with inclusion and job promotions for women, but helping to accelerate their careers as we come out of the pandemic, Ringus said.

To really make change, companies should start with commitment, Hariton noted, including from male leadership.

“There needs to be a lot of intentionality,” she said, highlighting the successes of Jane Fraser at Citi, who is the the first woman to head a major bank. Fraser joined Citi in 2004 and started in investment banking before moving up the ranks to lead different banking divisions and regions. Earlier this year, she was named the bank’s first woman CEO, and has been credited with helping to shape Citi into the business it is today.

Hariton credited Citi with supporting Fraser on her path to the top. “They put her in the right jobs, they managed that with a lot of intentionality so she was really in a position to take on the next role,” she said.

The second step toward parity, according to Hariton, is implementing measurement systems that track representation, pay equity, hiring, promotion and where people are by job category. From there, companies should put policies in place that support equity — like having all genders take parental leave to eliminate the stigma that surrounds maternity leave, and measuring all employees based on the work they produce versus time spent in the office.

The last step toward greater gender parity, according to Hariton, is to create sponsorship programs that help women to get into the “line jobs,” which can vary by category but include managing a P&L, “and allow them those experiences that will then enable them to get those top jobs.”

For more from, see: 

The Beauty Industry’s Wage Gap Problem

The Next Generation of Female Beauty Investors

Why Aren’t There More Women CEOs in Fashion?