Achieving gender parity in the UK's top companies: a mixed picture

Published Date
Apr 4, 2024
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The Government-backed FTSE Women Leaders Review has been released for the third year, with the results showing promising progression in the appointment of women to boards (with the 40% target for women on boards achieved in 2023) and leadership teams (with 34% of women holding leadership roles). 


Year on year, the Review has reported on the progress that listed companies are making to achieve gender parity in their boards and leadership teams. Women now occupy more than two-fifths of board positions across the FTSE 100, 250 and 350 at 42.6%, 41.8% and 42.1%, respectively. Leadership teams (meaning the Executive Committee and direct reports combined) are also becoming more diverse, with women holding 35.2%, 33.9% and 30% of the roles, respectively. The FTSE 350 companies are continuing to progress beyond the 40% voluntary minimum target for women on boards, although just under half still need to catch up on the leadership teams target, which is on track to be met by the end of 2025.

The missing piece

From a closer look at these results, this progress is not the same at the most senior levels of boards and leadership teams. The four key roles of CEO, Senior Independent Director (SID), Chair and Finance Director remain largely male-dominated, although notably more women are taking up the SID role than the other three. In the FTSE 350, women occupy 21 CEO, 162 SID, 53 Chair and 48 Finance Director roles. In fact, the number of women occupying the latter two positions has decreased slightly this year. 

In FTSE 100 leadership teams, women are often siloed into specific roles: 71% of HR Directors are women and 56% of Company Secretaries are women, compared with 25% and 27% of Finance Directors and Chief Information Officers, respectively. This not only suggests a lack of progress outside of these HR Director and Company Secretary roles, but also underlines the importance of recruitment of CEOs from ‘non-traditional’ career routes (since roles predominantly filled by women have not historically produced CEOs). These challenges are even greater in the FTSE 250 where the female appointment rate is 4% lower than in the FTSE 100. 

Why does this matter?

To reach the top spot of CEO, the most common route is first holding another senior role within the business, such as Finance Director, which is a proven stepping stone. These roles provide individuals with the opportunity to see at close hand what the role of CEO entails and how to lead at the highest level. Without more women occupying gateway roles, it is unlikely that the number of female CEOs will materially increase.

The Review also reveals a striking contrast between the paths women and men take to becoming Chair, one of the four key roles. For women, having a SID role under their belt was a boost: more than half of the female Chairs had been SIDs before, while less than half went straight to the Chair position. However, for men, the opposite is true: more men landed the Chair role without any experience as a SID compared to those with experience. The Review considered ongoing monitoring to be helpful here so that previous senior experience does not become a prerequisite for women. This explains why one of the Review’s recommendations is for FTSE 350 companies to appoint at least one woman to one of the four key board roles. There have recently been a number of competing voices, including disappointing perspectives that progress for women has ‘gone far enough’. Clearly, the Review has no sympathy for this view as it continues to aim to drive gender balance at the top of British business, and stands firm in its efforts to do that, ensuring a fairer, more equitable workplace for all women. Readers interested in this issue may wish to look at the Sexism in the City Report by the House of Commons Treasury Committee which examines the barriers faced by women in financial services and the progress made in removing gender pay gaps.

What is next?

With two years remaining until the end of the Review’s five-year term, it has identified several key areas where there is still work to do. Stepping up the appointment rate and driving further gains in CEO, Finance Director and Chair roles and on Executive Committees is top of the list.

The current progress at the senior level (other than SID appointments) is disappointing when compared with the strengthening pool of experienced and capable female candidates. Accordingly, the Review calls on companies to focus on removing bias in selection processes, which it identifies as slowing progress.

The Review also notes the importance of improving parental benefits for men in the workplace. It advises that levelling parental leave policies and parenting ‘out loud’ are essential for enabling gender equality. This links to the Review’s concern regarding the need to create inclusive cultures, suggesting that the Review sees policies and company culture as needing to work hand-in-hand to drive female representation across the workforce and at the highest levels. Companies may need to review their internal policies and appointment processes to assess their effectiveness and decide whether changes are needed to remove biases, while also navigating positive discrimination risks.

This is the second year in which the Review has widened its scope to include the largest 50 private UK companies. The ambition here is to drive consistency across the UK’s largest businesses and facilitate further progress outside of the listed context. It is clear that a lot of progress has been made, but there is still more to do in terms of both boardroom and leadership gender diversity. Looking to the future, it is likely that intersectionality and wider cultural change will gain greater prominence in driving results going forwards.

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This content was originally published by Allen & Overy before the A&O Shearman merger