Gender Pay Gap Persists Even at Top of Corporate Ladder

Gaps at the top highlight barriers women face early in their career, experts say

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The gender pay gap among top executives at the country’s biggest companies grew to the widest level in nine years in 2020, highlighting ongoing institutional barriers that keep women on an unequal footing in the workplace, according to a new report.

Key Takeaways

  • The gender pay gap among top executives at S&P 500 companies grew to its widest level in nine years in 2020, Morningstar research showed.
  • While cash salaries between men and women executives was about the same, men’s equity-based compensation outpaced women’s by 30 percentage points.
  • The gap at the top is indicative of institutional barriers all the way down the corporate ladder that keep women from achieving equality in the workplace, experts said.
  • Better pay transparency is seen as the first step toward closing the gender pay gap.

At S&P 500 companies, female C-suite executives earned an average $0.75 for every $1 their male counterparts earned, which is the lowest since 2012 and down from $0.88 in 2018, according to a survey by Morningstar released this week. (C-suite executives are those holding named executive officer roles, or CEO, CFO, and the next three highest-paying roles.)

Although there were slightly more women in the top jobs in 2020—14% vs. 8% in 2012—and their cash salaries were about on par with men, their share-based compensation, made up of stock and stock options, fell short. Men’s share-based pay increase outpaced women’s by nearly 30 percentage points, on average. At the current rate, women aren’t expected to reach pay parity with their male counterparts until at least 2060. 

Even though this study involved top executives, researchers point out that it has far-reaching implications for women down the corporate ladder. It is indicative of the institutional barriers women face from the start of their careers all the way to the top, they said.  

“What it is is an indicator of a systemic problem,” said Jacqueline Twillie, president of, a training and development firm for women who work in male-dominated industries. She said she remembered when she read that Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser last year earned $22.5 million, around $10 million less than her male counterparts who run large banks on Wall Street, and wondered, “If this happens at the highest level at a very visible company, how bad is it when we look down the line?”

Some researchers say the wage gap persists because corporate cultures tend to favor men. Discretionary pay, including share-based compensation, is often influenced by personal connections and insider relationships, which may disproportionately benefit men, wrote researchers in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper on gender pay gaps among top executives in December 2020. 

Twillie also said that women, while they may be excellent negotiators, may not be using teams—like an employment attorney and financial planner—the way men do in negotiating their employment contracts. 

“So they’re working with a blind spot,” she said.

To close the gender pay gap, transparency is the first step, said Jackie Cook, director of stewardship, product strategy, and development at Morningstar’s Sustainalytics team. Shareholders of large companies like Apple are already demanding transparency in compensation plans, and New York City will require companies to publish salary information in job listings, effective May 15.

“There is no logical reason why a woman doing a job that is equivalent to any man should not receive the same in stock or any other compensation,” said Richard D. Quinn, a retired corporate officer and compensation and benefits executive, in an email.

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  1. Morningstar. “Corporate Leadership's Gender Pay Gap Widened During the Pandemic.”

  2. National Bureau of Economic Research. “The Gender Gap Among Top Business Executives.”

  3. SEC. “Definitive Proxy Statement.”

  4. ““The New York City Council - File #: Int 1208-2018.”

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