NYSE's first female president points to gender diversity problem

  • The New York Stock Exchange appoints its first female president in its 226-year history, but some say the gender gap is still too wide.
  • Women hold just 4.6 percent of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 12 don't have a single female board member.
  • In 1995, according to the nonprofit Catalyst, women made up just 9 percent of corporate boards. Today the number is only around 21 percent.

The New York Stock Exchange has appointed a new leader — a woman.

This Friday, Stacey Cunningham will become the exchange's 67th president, the first female president in its 226-year history.

"It's a great day for her, but it's an even greater day for the New York Stock Exchange, because she has learned that business from the ground up," former NYSE CEO Dick Grasso told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Tuesday.

In fact, Cunningham started at the exchange as a summer intern in 1994, shortly before Grasso became CEO and chairman in 1995.

Cunningham landed her first full-time job on Wall Street in 1996 as a NYSE floor clerk with JJC Specialist, a division of Quick & Reilly. It was from there that she worked her way up to her current position as chief operating officer.

"Stacey was born to run the New York Stock Exchange, and she's going to do a fabulous job," Grasso said.

Even with Cunningham set to run the show, few women can be found on the floor of the exchange — or on Wall Street for that matter.

Women hold just 4.6 percent of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to promote inclusive workplaces for women. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 12 don't have a single female board member.

While Cunningham called the exchange "home" and said she loves being a part of it, she acknowledged that very few women work in finance and technology.

"It's a male-dominated environment," she said on "Squawk on the Street" on Tuesday. "And that hasn't changed quite as rapidly as some other industries have changed."

In fact, the speed of that change has been "glacial," said Janice Ellig, CEO of executive search firm Ellig Group.

Ellig pointed out that in 1995 when Catalyst started tracking women on corporate boards, women made up around 9 percent. Today it's closer to 21 percent.

"That's less than 1 percent a year over a 20-year period," Ellig said Tuesday on "Power Lunch."

And gender diversity stretches beyond employees, Ellig said. It should include shareholders, consumers and members of the community in which a company operates.

"All of the indicators are that women make a difference," Ellig said. "Why wouldn't a company tap into that talent?"

Companies need to pay more attention to women in the ranks and over the course of their careers, she said.

"You have to be intentional about growing ... diverse candidates and building that pipeline so that you can promote them," Ellig said.

WATCH: Stacey Cunningham to be NYSE's first female president