Accountants don’t often make history, but Helen Miles did this year when she replaced James Bowling as chief financial officer at Severn Trent. Her appointment, which was completed in July, makes the water company the first FTSE 100-listed business to have a woman in each of its top jobs: CEO, CFO and chairperson. Its board will be 70% female.
Miles’s promotion has been welcomed as a milestone for women’s representation in the upper echelons of British business. Of course, any step towards better gender equality is good.
But it’s 2023. After years of campaigning, many rounds of targets, not to mention more than half a century of feminist activism in the workplace, it is hard to believe that women-dominated leadership teams are still outside the norm.
Too few women in senior roles
Gender equality in British top teams has improved since 2010, when a government review found nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies lacked a woman in the boardroom. However, as of August 2023, there are still only nine female CEOs in the FTSE 100, including Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield. None are women of colour. In the FTSE 350, there are just 19, according to the Pipeline, 6% of the total.
The gender gap continues across board and top executive levels. Half of the FTSE 100 failed to meet the target of having a board made up of 40% or more women, the government-backed FTSE Women Leaders Review found last February. More than 90% of those female directors are non-executive. Only 18 chairs are women.
Meanwhile, 85 companies on the FTSE 100 have executive teams that are 60% or more male. Two-thirds do not have a single woman in an executive director role. After Miles steps up, there will be just 20 female CFOs.
When women do show up on leadership teams, they are often HR or marketing chiefs – roles stereotyped as “soft” and more focused on people than performance. Crucially, unlike their finance or operations counterparts, they are less often seen as contenders for the top job.
Why gender representation matters
Gender representation in leadership is not about tokenism. (Although, when looking at boards populated by the male, pale and stale, plus one woman, it’s apparent many do see it as a tick-box exercise.) And let’s move past sexist stereotypes that hold women inherently have gentler, more collaborative leadership styles (just look at Anna Wintour, Michelle Mone or Priti Patel).
But dozens of studies have found that diversity of all kinds is good for business. McKinsey research shows companies with more gender diversity in their top teams are more profitable than average, while Morningstar found companies with equal numbers of men and women on their boards achieved higher stock returns.
The benefits flow downwards, too. Leadership sets the tone and direction for the whole organisation. Successful female leaders can help to undo stereotypes that hold women at all levels back: for example that they will drop their careers to start a family, or have to become ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’ to get ahead.
Meanwhile, an organisation that overlooks female talent might not see it stick around for long. Those in other traditionally underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities or those with disabilities, will take note too.
Parachuting women into executive roles will not solve all a business’s problems. Having a woman in charge does not automatically make a company a great place to work, or even particularly progressive. But if nine in 10 of the FTSE 100 bosses were female, would the index’s gender pay gap see women earning 17% less on average?
Long past time to change
The old excuses have worn thin. Most of today’s crop of top CEOs are drawn from Gen X, meaning they would have started work in the ‘girl power’ era of the 90s and 00s – years after the first female UK prime minister (Margaret Thatcher, elected 1979) and FTSE 100 CEO (Dame Marjorie Scardino, appointed 1997). So where is that generation of women who should have been trained, mentored and encouraged to take the reins by now?
It is something many are asking and over the past decade there has been a real push for change. The Davies review in 2010, Hampton-Alexander review in 2016 and 25x25 initiative (which campaigns to see 25 female CEOs in the FTSE 100 by 2025) have raised the profile of the issue – if not yet leadership numbers.
New Financial Conduct Authority rules oblige listed companies to report on the representation of women and ethnic minorities on their boards and executive management. Failure to hit targets must be explained.
But targets matter little without cultural and attitudinal changes where it matters. It is high time that companies put money where their mouth is and ensure women in power become the norm, not the celebrated exception.
The female CEOs in the FTSE 100
- Milena Mondini de Focatiis, Admiral Group
- Amanda Blanc, Aviva
- Jette Nygaard-Andersen, Entain
- Emma Walmsley, GSK
- Liv Garfield, Severn Trent
- Jennie Daly, Taylor Wimpey
- Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone Group
- Debra Crew, Diageo
- Louise Beardmore, United Utilities
Updated 3 August 2023. Allison Kirkby has been announced as BT’s new CEO, starting from January 2024