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How to get more women chairing our biggest companies?

Do the Chairs of our biggest companies represent the UK population as a whole?

It’s something I got to thinking about ahead of International Women’s Day - and I don’t expect you will be massively surprised by the data.

Boardex, for example, reported recently that there are currently 20 companies in the FTSE100 which have female chairs. Among them is Anita Frew at Rolls Royce.

So what about those leading delivery? What about the CEOs?

Analysis shows that 5% of chief executives of leading companies in the world’s major economies are female.

This is despite 50.7% of the UK population being women. Yes, a slight majority.

So, half of the population, a fifth of Chairs at FTSE100 firms. Why?

The rise of female NEDS

The picture across FTSE100 boards is slightly more encouraging.

Almost 40% of those positions are now held by women - but most are non-executive roles.

Ten years ago, the figure was 12.5%, so progress is being made. But it isn’t enough.

Back in November, Cranfield School of Management expressed concerns that the increase is being driven by Boards appointing female NEDs in order to comply with targets.

They aren’t in the roles which can really drive change. That isn’t good enough. And I’m not the only one who thinks this.

Alison Kay, Managing Partner for Client Service at EY, UK & Ireland, said: “The research shows that FTSE businesses are increasingly hitting the targets set for female representation.

“However, they are falling woefully short of the intended outcome - distributing the power and influence necessary to achieve true gender parity.”

Professor Sue Vinnicombe, lead author of the report, said: “The lack of progress in terms of seeing women in these key executive roles is frankly appalling.

“For real change to happen, women simply must be in the significant decision-making roles of CEO and Chair.”

Gender-proofing recruitment

Alison Kay calls for companies to move beyond simply complying with targets and instead address the need for “gender-proofing” of executive succession planning.

Gender-proofing is the evaluation process of seeking to identify potential gender inequalities and biases within executive recruitment.

It aims to ensure that hiring decisions are free from gender prejudice or stereotype and instead based solely on merit.

This approach typically involves an in-depth analysis of recruitment processes, job descriptions, interview questions and criteria set by employers – all with the aim of ensuring gender is not a factor when considering candidates for a role.

3 ways forward:

1. Introduce talent management processes free from gender bias

As described above, organisations should strive to create an environment and culture within which talent is assessed and promoted objectively.

This could involve implementing more transparent selection criteria for leadership positions.

Alternatively, it might mean creating more opportunities for mentoring and networking for all potential candidates – regardless of gender.

2. Take a look at your organisational culture

By introducing initiatives such as work-from-home policies, flexible schedules, and parental leave, companies can create an atmosphere where women feel respected and empowered to make decisions - thereby bolstering their chances of future boardroom positions.

3. Commit to the spirit of targets

Companies can ensure that they publicly commit to increasing the number of female chairs on the FTSE 100 executive committees over a given timescale.

By setting goals which are realistic yet challenging enough to inspire action progress can be made.

But work should be done in the spirit of the objective of putting more women in key decision-making leadership roles - not as a way of simply meeting quotas.

What next?

This is inevitably a very brief look at a very big challenge. It’s also important to note that there has been great movement on this issue. As Jean Mountain often says, Enterprising Women is about the rise of women - not the fall of men.

I just need to think back to how business was 25 years ago when Jean and I were developing Integra and Enterprising Women to remember how far we have come in the East Midlands.

Things have improved. There’s no doubt about that. However, there remains a need everywhere for women to be able to rise to the core decision-making roles their talent and skill warrants.

The three suggestions made above simply scratch the surface of practical changes organisations can make around the recruitment and succession planning of their most senior people. Me and colleagues at Enterprising Women would be interested to know your ideas too.

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