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Women Are Making Over The Beauty Industry’s Boy’s Club

The technology sector has been in the hot seat recently over its lack of gender balance, but it’s not the only industry whose upper echelons remain male-dominated. The multibillion-dollar beauty industry sells primarily to women, but its biggest companies continue to be run mostly by men. That means men are at the helm of the companies that choose the shade of a lipstick and the size of a mascara wand.

Now, however, a new wave of women-led startups are trying to change that. Companies such as Birchbox, Glossier and Ipsy are challenging established beauty-industry giants, and executives such as Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp argue that their businesses’ more diverse leadership teams give them an edge. There are signs they may be right, or at least that investors think they are: Women-led beauty startups are attracting money from venture capital funds, and shareholder groups are putting pressure on existing companies to diversify their leadership.

According to LedBetter, a research group that maintains a database on the number of women who hold leadership positions at the world’s top consumer companies, many major beauty companies have little or no female representation either on their boards of directors or among their senior management teams. Coty, which owns brands such as Covergirl, Sally Hansen, OPI and Philosophy, had no women on its board until recently and previously employed an all-male executive team, though the company says women have served as executives in the past. The leadership teams of cosmetics giant Revlon, along with those of Bath and Body Works (which is owned by L Brands) and luxury conglomerate LVMH (which owns brands such as Make Up For Ever, Fresh and Benefit Cosmetics), are also highly skewed in favor of men, while Estee Lauder’s board is nearly balanced but the company has relatively few women in executive positions. Overall, women occupy 34 percent of board seats and 24 percent of executive positions at the personal care companies in LedBetter’s database, which is better than the ratio in other industries but still far below gender parity.

Women are underrepresented at the top of big companies

Share of executive and board roles filled by women per industry in 2016

Personal care 34% 24% 29%
Apparel 32 22 27
Retail 26 25 25
Health 27 23 25
Banking 24 20 22
Business services 28 17 22
Home Goods 26 17 21
Food & Beverage 24 17 21
Technology 23 18 20
Other 22 17 20
Children’s 22 16 19
Entertainment & Media 19 15 17
Transportation 16 15 16
Energy 14 13 13

Among companies tracked by LedBetter.
LedBetter index is average of percentage of women on boards and on executive team.
Beauty industry falls under personal care.

Source: LedBetter

These established players are facing competition from startups, many of them led by women. PitchBook, a public and private markets database site, identified 118 beauty companies that received venture investments between 2012 and mid-2017. Of those, at least 63 companies — 53 percent — had at least one female founder, with 50 of them serving as CEOs.1 That’s better than other industries: According to PitchBook, 17 percent of health care startups and 16 percent of information technology startups have at least one female founder. Even among beauty companies, however, only 19 percent of startups were led entirely by women.

These companies argue that their more diverse leadership helps them see opportunities that their male-led competitors might miss. Companies such as Birchbox, which is led by women, and Ipsy, which has a female president but a male CEO, offer customers more personalization, including through subscription boxes, which contain monthly beauty samples selected to match customers’ interests. Companies are also emphasizing customizable products such as apps that help determine a customer’s perfect foundation shade, a trend that’s been building in part as a response to longstanding criticism about the industry’s lack of products for women of color. Black women, in particular, spend significantly more on beauty products than the U.S. overall does, at least in part because they often have to try many different products before finding one that works for them.

Beauty startups are entering the market at a time when online shopping and other trends are reshaping the business — and giving newcomers a chance to break in. Some are taking nontraditional routes into the industry: Ipsy co-founder Michelle Phan, for example, amassed over 8 million subscribers by creating makeup tutorials on YouTube. Melody McCloskey, founder and CEO of StyleSeat, an online platform that connects clients with beauty services, said consumers are moving away from retail and salons, toward specialty outlets and online retailers, so her company built a platform for owners of small beauty businesses.

Investors are helping to fuel the growth of beauty startups that feature women in executive roles. McCloskey’s StyleSeat, for example, has received about $40 million in funding, and the company acquired another beauty services platform last January. Glossier, a digital beauty startup, has raised $34.4 million in funding so far and began shipping its beauty products internationally this summer. According to analytics firm CB Insights, investors are working with more beauty startups — beauty companies are expected to make 149 deals with investors in 2017, which would represent a 19 percent growth from last year.

Anu Duggal, a founding partner at Female Founders Fund, an early-stage investor in female-founded startups, said the women of the biggest startups, like Glossier and Ipsy, “have really leveraged a unique perspective or voice to build a brand that caters to a largely social audience.”

Even as a wave of women-run startups launch and gain footing, traditional companies are facing pressure from investors to change the way they do business. Brands such as Sephora and L’Oreal are starting accelerators for beauty startups, and Coty, the beauty and fragrance company, just added its first woman to its board in April after facing pressure from outside groups.

“In the beauty industry, it only makes sense that users of the product are on the board,” said Stephanie Sonnabend, co-founder and chair of 2020 Women on Boards, one of the organizations that pushed Coty to diversify. She cited studies that have found that companies with more diverse boards tend to be more successful — certainly in terms of financial returns and perhaps also in making decisions and attracting top talent, which may give them a competitive edge. “Diverse boards make better decisions,” Sonnabend said.


  1. In some cases, Pitchbook did not have information on the gender of company founders, so the true percentage could be higher.

Michelle Cheng was a data reporting intern at FiveThirtyEight.