How Women Rise: 10 Female CEOs Who Moved Up & Around the World

Sally Helgesen’s How Women Rise is a field manual for how women can avoid the cultural norms that hold some women back. Helgesen, a recent guest on the Take Control of Your Career podcast, says that women can suffer from a “disease to please” and are often reluctant to claim their achievements. These are two of the 12 habits that she and co-author Marshall Goldsmith say keep some women from rising.

Mobility – A Career Opportunity Women May Overlook

In addition to the obstacles Helgesen offers, another career accelerator that many women miss out on may have to do with relocation. In some corporations, the experience gained through relocation puts you on the fast track. That’s likely because a well-rounded executive may be required to have experience managing a P&L or other experience in supply chain, operations, marketing, sales, or finance.

These diverse opportunities may not be available in a single location. Or waiting for the desired opening in your hometown could take years versus moving for that opportunity today. Those who wait could see their careers stall. By moving, women show their willingness to gain that experience when – and wherever – it becomes available.

An assignment abroad or in another market can significantly diversify someone’s experience. Moving can broaden someone’s outlook, demonstrate an ability to take risks, and showcase a willingness to adapt to change.

Still in 2023, Not Enough Women Rise to the CEO Spot

With the Jan. 1, 2023, start dates of five new Fortune 500 chief executives, the number of female CEOs among Fortune 500 companies has now reached 53 – just slightly above 10%.

But given that women make up nearly 50% of the US workforce, representation of females in the C Suite is still woefully low. How women rise in their career is worth analyzing to address the gap.

Women Who Rise in Their Careers Often Move from City to City

If you look closely at the backgrounds of the (too few) women who have ascended to CEO positions in large corporations, you may notice that they are movers – literally.

Here’s a quick profile of 10 CEOs and former CEOs who embraced mobility along their career path.

  1. Mary Barra – Chair & CEO of General Motors
  2. Michele Buck – President & CEO of Hershey
  3. Ursula Burns – Former CEO of Xerox
  4. Lynn Good – Chair, President & CEO of Duke Energy
  5. Whitney Wolfe Herd – CEO of MagicLab / Founder & CEO of Bumble
  6. Marillyn Hewson – Former Chair, President & CEO of Lockheed Martin
  7. Pamela Nicholson – Former President & CEO of Enterprise
  8. Ginni Rometty – Former Chair & CEO of IBM
  9. Suzanne Sitherwood – CEO of Spire
  10. Julie Sweet – Chair & CEO of Accenture

Why Do Companies Offer Relocation Opportunities?

Employers offer paid relocations for a variety of reasons. Relocation can help attract and retain talent. For example, some people seek out opportunities to become an expat or move to a more desirable location. Some employees, if not challenged and offered opportunities for growth, become a retention risk as they become interested in opportunities elsewhere.

Other reasons include local talent shortages, especially for specialized skills. The employer may see a cost savings to recruit specialized talent to move rather than hiring and training local talent. Some companies that are expanding geographically may want their own proven talent to work in new markets.

Particularly in post-merger or acquisition scenarios, employers will often pay to relocate tenured employees to the newly acquired organization to create structural and cultural alignment between the two companies. Or after an acquisition, key players of the acquired organization may decide to cash out their equity positions and retire. That often leaves a talent gap to fill.

All the above situations create opportunities for how women rise into executive roles.

Mobility is a Factor in How Women Rise

In any organization, if a typical path to the executive ranks involves relocation, and some rising leaders turn down offers to move, those leaders – whether male or female – may be taking themselves off the typical success path – or at least slowing their progress.

Moving is a big challenge, however. And the decision to move – even uproot a family – should not be based solely on one person’s career. Often, however, when an emerging leader is offered a big opportunity, that person’s partner may have hesitations.

That’s why employers commonly offer job search and family integration benefits to dual-career couples. A relocation coach can help the spouse or partner find a new job, consulting roles, or gig work. In addition, they can provide guidance in starting a business.

Moving is a big step. However, the rewards can be great. Someone who moves can find the entire experience an awakening – to new friends, new climate, new past times, and new adventures.

Employers’ Role in Mobility & How Women Rise

Employers should audit their DEI programs to ensure that corporate-sponsored relocation opportunities are being offered in an equitable fashion. Some employers may assume that women, especially those with children or those in dual-career partnerships, may not be eager to move. That may not be the case. And it’s worth noting that the appropriate benefit package makes all the difference.

Research proves that single women are willing and interested in moving as much as single men. However, married women show a lower willingness than married men. Mobility leaders understand the growing need to address spousal support for married women who relocate. Our Relocation Services Study reveals that the majority of mobility professionals (57%) believe that women are more likely to relocate when they are offered flexible benefits, including career assistance for their spouses.

Additionally, employers who want to ensure a successful move for all employees should consider that a major failure of relocations often occurs when the spouse/partner isn’t happy. Offering spouse/partner benefits is essential to your DEI strategy – and it helps ensure the success of all relocations involving couples.

In a recent survey, 56% of people who moved for their partner’s career said that not working had negatively impacted their mental health. This study, conducted by The Permits Foundation, found that 76% of the spouse partners of relocating employees were female in 2022 versus 85% in 2008.

According to The Permits Foundation 2022 International Dual Careers Survey Report:

  • 88% of partner respondents held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 53% of partners were not in employment in the host country, and 84% of those not employed wanted to be.
  • 26% of partner respondents were considering leaving the host country due to work access restrictions.
  • In 44% of organizations, employees had returned home early from an international assignment in the past three years due to concerns about the partner’s employment.

How Women Rise to CEO: A Quick Look at 10 Female CEOs Who Relocated & Rose*

1. Mary Barra – Chair & CEO of General Motors
Barra has spent her entire career at General Motors, but has relocated for various roles within the company. This includes positions in Brazil and Australia. She became CEO in 2014 and was elected Chair of the GM Board of Directors in 2016. Prior to becoming CEO, Barra served as GM Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing, and Supply Chain. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from Stanford. She’s held various roles in product development, manufacturing, supply chain, and human resources.

2. Michele Buck – President & CEO of Hershey
According to Buck’s LinkedIn profile, after graduate school (MBA from the University of NC at Chapel Hill), she took a job in Texas with Frito Lay. After a year and three months, she moved to take successive positions with Kraft General Foods (Philadelphia, PA and White Plains, NY). After nearly six years with Kraft, she moved to New Jersey for a job with Nabisco (VP of Marketing), went back to Kraft in New Jersey, then moved to Hershey, PA for a leadership role in marketing, where she eventually ascended to the top job at Hershey.

3. Ursula Burns – Former CEO of Xerox
Burns grew up in a public housing project in New York City. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York and a master’s degree in engineering from Columbia University, Burns began her career at Xerox Corporation in 1980. In 1991, she became executive assistant to Wayland Hicks, then chairman of Xerox. Between 1992 and 1997, Burns lived in London as the VP and General Manager of the Workgroup Copier Business in London. Returning to the U.S., she held a series of successive positions.

In 2009, Burns was promoted to CEO and chair the following year, making her the first African American woman to head a Fortune 500 Company. After her retirement from Xerox in 2017, Burns later became chairwoman of the Dutch telecommunication services company, VEON, Ltd and a year later, its CEO. She held both positions until 2020. In June 2021, Burns released her book, Where You Are Is Not Who You Are.

4. Lynn Good, Chair – President & CEO of Duke Energy
Good is an Ohio native who graduated from Miami University with a bachelor’s degree in Systems Analysis and Accounting. Good joined Arthur Andersen & Co. in Ohio as an auditor and became one of Andersen’s few women partners. In 2002, Good joined Cinergy Corp. as Senior Vice President and three years later was promoted to the C Suite: CEO and CFO. In 2006, following the merger of Cinergy into Duke Energy, Good was named Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Duke Energy in the company’s Charlotte, NC, headquarters.

In 2011, Duke Energy of Charlotte and Progress Energy of Raleigh agreed to merge. Regulators, however, got involved in the new company’s appointment of a CEO, requiring a selection other than the former CEOs of the merging companies. In 2013, a board composed of both Duke Energy and Progress Energy members chose Good. In 2016, she was elected chairman of the board.

5. Whitney Wolfe Herd – CEO of MagicLab / Founder & CEO of Bumble
Wolfe Herd aspired to entrepreneurship at a young age. While in college, she started her own business selling bamboo tote bags to help areas affected by the major BP oil spill of 2010. After a short stint working with orphanages in South–East Asia post-graduation, Wolfe Herd joined Hatch Labs at age 22.

It was at this New York City incubator that she met Sean Rad and became involved with the startup Cardify. The project was abandoned, but her connection with Rad led to her co-founding Tinder, alongside Chris Gulczynski. In December 2014, Herd relocated to Austin, TX, and founded Bumble, a female-focused dating app. And in February 2021, Herd became the world’s youngest female, self-made billionaire when she took Bumble public at the age of 31.

6. Marillyn Hewson – Former Chair, President & CEO of Lockheed Martin
Raised by a single mom, Hewson, whose father died of a heart attack when she was nine, grew up in Alabama along with four siblings. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at the University of Alabama. After school, she worked as an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics before joining Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, GA, plant as an Industrial Engineer in 1983. During her career, she has held leadership positions across the corporation. In 2013, she was named CEO, a position she remained in until 2020.

In 2015, Hewson announced Lockheed Martin’s acquisition of Sikorsky Aircraft, the maker of Black Hawk helicopters. This bold move signaled her resolve to lead the company in a new direction – to dominate in the military hardware space. Hewson began her career at Lockheed Martin in the United States but later relocated to the company’s operations in Japan and the United Kingdom. She also oversaw the company’s expansion into new markets, including the Middle East and Africa.

7. Pamela Nicholson – Former President & CEO of Enterprise
Nicholson was raised in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri in 1981. Her career spanned assignments on both coasts before becoming CEO of this Midwest firm. Nicholson started at Enterprise Rent A Car as a Management Trainee in St. Louis. Inside of one year, she moved to California, and in 12 years, held the top job there – Regional VP of the rapidly growing Southern California Group. In 1997, she moved back into a rental as the General Manager of the New York group. Nicholson then was promoted to Senior Vice President of North American Operations in 1999. She became Chief Operating Officer in 2003 and President in 2008.

In 2013, Nicholson was promoted to CEO. She was not only the first female CEO in the company’s history, but also the first that is not a member of the Taylor family of St. Louis. Her predecessor, Andrew “Andy” Taylor, son of founder Jack Taylor, remained as Executive Chairman. Nicholson retired in 2019.

8. Ginni Rometty – Former Chair & CEO of IBM
Rometty spent her entire career at IBM, but relocated for different roles within the company, including positions in Japan and China. Rometty grew up in Chicago and entered Northwestern University in 1975 with a scholarship from General Motors that covered much of her degree. She studied computer science. She took her first job at GM’s Detroit headquarters. In 1981, she got her first job at IBM, which involved installing and supporting IBM’s brand new personal computer.

After she successfully led IBM’s merger with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s consulting business in 2003, she was recognized as a CEO contender. She became CEO in 2012 and oversaw the company’s transformation – from hardware to software. Her acquisition of Red Hat wasn’t well-received by Wall Street at the time. Today, many look back and consider how well her strategy benefitted the company in the long run. She retired in 2020 from her position as CEO and chairman.

9. Suzanne Sitherwood – CEO of Spire
Sitherwood grew up in a small town in Indiana, and moved several times throughout her career. A graduate of Purdue University with a degree in mechanical engineering, she got her start in the energy industry in the 1980s. She became president of The Laclede Group in September 2011 and CEO in 2012. Prior to those roles, she lived in Atlanta, Tennessee, and Florida while serving as the president of Atlanta Gas Light, Chattanooga Gas Light, and Florida City Gas.

In the 2000s, she served as president and CEO of EnergyAmerica, which was later acquired by NiSource. She then served as President of NiSource’s Columbia Gas of Ohio subsidiary before being promoted to Chief Executive of NiSource’s gas distribution business. After becoming CEO of St. Louis-based Laclede Group, she oversaw the company’s expansion through several successful acquisitions. In 2016, she rebranded the company, today known as Spire, which is now the fifth largest publicly traded natural gas company in the U.S.

10. Julie Sweet – Chair & CEO of Accenture
Sweet decided to learn Chinese and live in Taiwan and China in 1987 and 1988. According to Julie, who is a self-described continuous learner, she often pursued paths that were more uncommon for women. Sweet grew up in Massachusetts and attended college in California, then moved to New York to earn a law degree from Columbia Law School. She made partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of the longest established law firms in the U.S., then joined Accenture in 2010 as its General Counsel. She was named CEO in 2019, the first woman to hold that position, then became chair in 2021.

Sweet leads a global team of 700,000 employees – that’s more people than Microsoft, Google, and Tesla combined. During one of the tightest job markets (between December 2020 and May 2022), Accenture hired 200,000 employees. According to Sweet, the most important skill Accenture looks for in any employee, regardless of their expertise level, is the ability to learn.

The Right Relocation Benefits Help Women Rise Faster

As you can see from these women’s stories, relocations are a big factor in how females rise to the C Suite. As we do our part to increase gender parity and the number of women in leadership roles around the world, IMPACT Group has seen, within our client base, the number of males who relocate for their spouse/partner’s career steadily climb from 20% to 50% over the years. A strong support system at work and home is a difference maker in women’s career prospects. Discover how we address relocation challenges to help more women relocate for their next best opportunity.