What might an insurer, a housebuilder and two water companies have in common in early 21st-century Britain?
Here’s one answer: if you checked the UK’s biggest listed companies at the end of January, these four businesses would have been among the only ones with a female chief executive and chair.
This finding comes from the authors of a report published last week by the FTSE Women Leaders Review, a government-backed campaign group with an otherwise striking record of success in getting women into the boardroom and the executive suite.
When their work kicked off in 2011, 152 of the 350 largest companies did not have a single woman on their board. That figure halved within two years and fell to zero by 2020. Women now hold 40 per cent of board seats in those top 350 companies, a milestone the campaigners did not expect to reach until 2025. The number of all-male executive committees has also fallen so much that only 10 are left.
“It’s just quite incredible really,” Denise Wilson, the review’s chief executive, told me last week. “It is a complete revolution in what’s going on in British boardrooms.”
This also means it is becoming harder than ever to argue there are not enough experienced women to be a chief executive or chair. So the battle for corporate gender equality is about to take an interesting turn.
Wilson’s group is now pushing for every FTSE 350 company to have at least one woman in the big four jobs of chief executive, chair, finance director or senior independent director by the end of 2025.
That should be do-able: most companies already fit the bill. But true equality will mean going further and that’s where things will get tricky.
Progress has come via voluntary action rather than the quotas that countries such as France and Norway have introduced. Wilson’s report ranks the UK second only to France in female boardroom representation, and just ahead of Norway.
This is not at all what I expected in 2005 when I went to Oslo to report on Norway’s groundbreaking launch of female board quotas.
The measure was widely deemed an annoying yet necessary step. As one female executive memorably told me, there’s a saying in Norwegian that sometimes you have to eat camels. “They may be hairy and they may be dirty, but if you want to get anything done you have to do it.”
The UK has shown voluntary action can work — for directorships. But the numbers are daunting when it comes to CEO and chair roles. Women account for just 16 per cent of FTSE 350 chairs and about 8 per cent of chief executives.
These figures explain what happened last week when I asked the BoardEx data firm to check how many big UK companies have more than one woman in a top job.
It found that just four of the 250 biggest listed businesses had a female chief executive and chair: the Admiral insurance group, home builder Taylor Wimpey and the Pennon and Severn Trent water companies. Another four had a female CEO and chief financial officer. Severn Trent is set to make boardroom history in July, when a new chief financial officer will make it the first FTSE 100 company with a female chair, chief executive and finance director.
Breaking that record won’t happen easily because the blocks to female advancement are not always straightforward. Companies still prefer a chief executive with experience running a business unit, so it’s no good having a pipeline of female executives concentrated in marketing or HR roles.
But that problem is easy to solve compared with our tendency to judge female leaders differently. Women who become company chairs disproportionately get there after being a senior independent director, according to the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.
“But men disproportionately go straight into the chair role,” says Julia Gillard, the institute’s chair.
We have to ask if that is because men are judged on their potential and women on their experience, says Gillard. The answer is almost certainly yes.
This is a tedious problem, but not an insurmountable one.
Like so many other barriers to female progress, understanding that it exists at all is half the battle.