Closing The Gap

Geisha Williams' departure from PG&E means there are now no Latina Fortune 500 CEOs

Geisha Williams, president and chief executive officer of PG&E Corp., speaks during the 2018 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018.
F. Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Geisha Williams, president and chief executive officer of PG&E Corp., speaks during the 2018 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

On Sunday, PG&E announced that its CEO, Geisha Williams, would be stepping down.

Williams, who was the first and only Latina woman to head a Fortune 500 company, was named CEO in 2017. Her departure marks the first exit of a female Fortune 500 CEO this year, reducing the already scant number of female top executives in the group to just 27, according to Fortune.

Williams' exit, and Ursula Burns' 2016 exit from Xerox, means there are now no Latina or African-American women in charge of Fortune 500 companies. Longtime PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi stepped down from her position last October.

PG&E Corp CEO and President Geisha Williams speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - Day 2 on October 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. 
Paul Morigi | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
PG&E Corp CEO and President Geisha Williams speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - Day 2 on October 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. 

John Simon, who has served as PG&E's executive vice president and general counsel since 2017, will serve as interim CEO. In a statement addressing the leadership changes, Richard C. Kelly, Chair of the Board of PG&E Corporation, thanked Williams for her "service and tireless commitment" to the company and recognized that "tremendous challenges" lie ahead for the organization.

Investigators linked 17 wildfires to the California utility company's equipment in the year Williams became CEO, according to Fortune. Just hours after her departure, the company announced that it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the financial impact of the wildfires.

Williams' exit highlights a persistent problem in corporate America, where very few women, and even fewer women of color, hold leadership positions. When Williams first assumed the CEO role in 2017, there were 32 female CEOs at the companies on the Fortune 500 list, the highest number in history. That number has since decreased, with just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO seats now being held by women.

In a CNBC Make It interview for Equal Pay Day last year, Lisa Crooms-Robinson, Professor of Law & Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Howard University, said that the lack of women in leadership roles, especially women of color, certainly affects the gender and racial pay gaps that exist today.

Women earn, on average, 80 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. Among women of color that number is even lower, with black women earning 63 cents for every dollar, Native American women earning 57 cents for every dollar and Latina women earning 54 cents for every dollar.

"For most organizations, [closing these gaps] would require a shift that goes beyond diversity committees and affinity groups," said Crooms-Robinson. "Committed organizational leadership at the very highest level is essential to make such a significant culture shift."

In an interview to accompany Time's list of women who are changing the world, Williams spoke about what it meant to be the first Latina in her position and the impact that she hoped it would have on young women in the future.

"You always hear people talking about what it means to be the first," she said. "But I think it's important that we focus on making sure there are others. While I may be the first, I certainly don't want to be the last."

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