For decades they were denied the top executive jobs in American corporations, but now women (as of mid-May 2012) run 18 of the Fortune 500 companies, among the nation's biggest. Twenty-one women CEOs also run companies in the Fortune 501-1000 category. Despite this narrowing of the gender gap at the top of the executive pyramid, women still only account for a small percentage of CEOs in America's largest corporations.
Those women who have ascended to the top job, however, have been successful in running their respective companies.

SEE: 7 Outstanding Female Investors

Although some women CEOs have failed to improve their firm's bottom line, a significant number of them have boosted company profits and have positioned their companies for future expansion and increased revenues. Among them are the following:

Ursula M. Burns
The first African American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, Ursula Burns has been CEO of Xerox Corporation since July 2009 and is now also chairman. She began her tenure at Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern. Under her leadership, Xerox made the largest acquisition in its history when the firm bought Affiliated Computer Services for $6.4 billion, thus establishing a profitable foothold in the $500 billion business services sector.

Ellen J. Kullman
As the top executive and chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, the world's third largest chemical company since 2009, Kullman transformed the firm's customer relations division to concentrate on customer needs, which subsequently drove innovation and decision making at the firm. Her focus on innovation was responsible for a record 40% of DuPont's revenue coming from new products during the recent recession.

Irene B. Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld is CEO and chairman of Kraft Foods, an international packaged foods company which operates in about 170 countries. Among its well-known 12 brands are Kraft cheeses, Oreo cookies, Nabisco, Maxwell House coffee and Oscar Mayer meats. Profits in both the domestic and foreign markets increased initially under her leadership. In 2011 her incentive bonus was cut by 46% because the firm failed to meet its targeted financial goals despite the continuing profitability of the company.

SEE: A Guide To CEO Compensation

Indra K. Nooyi
Widely celebrated in the business world as one of the most successful current CEOs, Nooyi has run PepsiCo since October 2006. A global food and beverage firm whose brands include Quaker Oats, Tropicana orange juice, Gatorade, Frito Lay and of course, Pepsi Cola, the company share price has dropped 1% during Nooyi's tenure. As of mid-May, Wall Street analysts say the stock is undervalued by about $10. Despite these problems, Nooyi substantially increased the firm's revenue from its "healthy" products line - fruit, grain and dairy products - and will continue to promote these company divisions. PepsiCo revenue has increased 72% during her tenure, along with a doubling of profits.

Lynn L. Elsenhans
She was chairman, CEO and president of Sunoco, the only woman to run a major energy company. Demand for fuel was at a 27-year low when Elsenhans was appointed CEO in 2008. To offset the losses, she cut personnel, sold or closed the firm's refineries and sold off unprofitable or losing businesses. During her term as CEO, the company value increased by 52%. She left Sunoco early in 2012.

Patricia Woertz
As Chairman, president and CEO of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, an international agricultural processing firm and purveyor of consumer and industrial foods and products, Woertz led the firm to a record high profitability. Under her watch the firm recently posted sales of $61 billion and improved its operations and strategic investments and planning, which helped account for the company's increased bottom line. Woertz is reportedly seeking new acquisitions for the firm and building new plants and processing centers for its various operations. Among her principle concerns is stopping the after-harvest waste of food - waste of wheat and rice that can be salvaged to feed hundreds of millions of people.

SEE: Mergers And Acquisitions: Why They Can Fail

There are now, and were, other women CEOs of major American corporations who have led their firms to increased profits. As in most businesses, however, some years were good, other years there was no growth and sometimes a decline or a major loss.

Among other notable and successful women CEOs are Laura J. Sen, BJ's Wholesale Club; Margaret Whitman, former CEO of eBay and later CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Beth Mooney, CEO and chairman of KeyCorp, a $90 billion financial services firm.

The Bottom Line
Although more women than ever before now run Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, women still find it difficult in the corporate community to get mentors to help them advance, and to be paid equal to men holding positions of similar responsibility. The gender gap still exists and progress toward the top job for women executives remain slow.

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