By Joann S. Lublin

The total number of women running S&P 500 companies held steady from the previous year’s analysis at 28, including seven women who retired or held the job less than a year, and remains at roughly 5% of the total. But for the first time in The Journal study’s 28-year history, three of the 10 highest paid executives in the overall sample are women.

They are Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. HPE -0.11% , Virginia “Ginni” Rometty at International Business Machines Corp. IBM +0.30% and Indra Nooyi atPepsiCo Inc. PEP +0.10%

Most of the 21 female leaders advanced into their roles within a company rather than getting recruited. “These women must be exceptional” because so few reach the corner office, said Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

S&P 500 businesses now run by women generated a median total shareholder return of 18.4% in 2016, compared with 15.7% for those commanded by men. Returns at female-led firms outperformed male-run companies in three of the previous five years. Total shareholder return measures changes in a company’s stock price and dividend payments.

“The board of a company with excellent shareholder returns and operational results likely will reward the CEO more, regardless of gender,’’ said Irv Becker, an executive-pay specialist for Hay Group, a unit of recruiters Korn/Ferry International.

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