Revealed: The FTSE 100 companies where women do and don't succeed

MT takes a closer look at the executive talent pipeline.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

It can be difficult to defend the record of business on gender equality. Women get paid less and promoted less than their male colleagues. At the top, the number of female CEOs remains stubbornly low – only 7% at the FTSE 100 and even less in the FTSE 250. Old, rich white men in suits still undeniably run the show.

Even the apparent success of Lord Davies’s well-publicised push for more women on boards is an illusion. Women may now make up over 25% of FTSE 100 directors, but the increase has largely been among non-executives, who get seats at tables, not fingers on buttons. 

The primary cause is not overt sexism but unconscious bias – the crystallisation of older prejudices among otherwise well-meaning people, men and women. It’s behind the misplaced notion of the macho, ‘hero’ leader, the fact women pay such a high parenthood penalty and the way girls still tend to avoid careers in well-paying STEM subjects.

The catch-22 is that you need more women in leadership to begin to change unthinking assumptions about women in leadership – hence the controversial push for quotas.

The problem is, you can’t just magic women to the front of the queue on goodwill or even talent alone. The people who become CEOs are always drawn from those one level below, the divisional and functional heads, and it is here that you can discern the shape of the future.

Pipeline, pipeline, pipeline

If you were hoping we’re only a few years away from a dramatic surge in women leaders, you may want to skip the next couple of paragraphs...

Women FTSE 100 CEOs will remain a minority for the foreseeable future because the pipeline for senior leaders at our biggest firms is not much more diverse than the CEO club itself. MT looked at the composition of executive committees and leadership teams at our biggest companies. In the 76 firms for which this information is readily available, 18% of top executives were women.

Though that’s a far cry from the Hampton-Alexander Review’s target of 33% by 2020, it’s still clearly better than 7%. However, if you break it down further it seems less favourable. Many of the 176 female executives MT looked at were HR directors (just over half of the surveyed companies had women in this role), general counsels, comms directors/heads of corporate affairs or other supporting roles.

There are plenty of HR professionals who are genuinely good business people 

If you look at the roles from where CEOs are actually recruited, there were only 12 female CFOs, 24 other functional heads (such as sales, marketing, operations, strategy, technology and, in financial services, risk) and 49 divisional heads. That’s nearer to 10% of typical CEO candidates than 20%, and a long, long way from half.

The bottom line: even if the top firms promote an equal number of men and women into middle management – and that’s a big if - it will take a long time for them to filter through to executive teams and then to the chief executive’s chair.

A ray of hope

Unsurprisingly, the composition of executive committees varies widely across the index. While there are at least eight FTSE 100 firms with no women at all in their executive committees, there are also at least 22 in which women comprise 25% or more, showing that – shock – it can be done.

The banking and retail sectors come out strong, as do those businesses that already have a woman CEO. Go figure.

Top 5 FTSE 100 firms by female executive committee membership* 

1. Severn Trent: 60% (CEO, chief customer officer, commercial director, MD wholesale, HR director, general counsel)

2. easyJet: 56% (CEO, COO, strategy director, chief people officer, general counsel)

3. Kingfisher: 43% (CEO, CFO, supply chain)

4. Standard Chartered: 43% (retail banking CEO, ASEA/private/commercial banking CEO, Europe/North America CEO, COO, HR director, head of comms)

5. Diageo: 38% (CFO, CMO, North America CEO, HR director, general counsel)

Bottom 8 FTSE 100 firms by female executive committee membership* 

1= Barclays: 0%

1= BP: 0%

1= British American Tobacco: 0%

1= Direct Line: 0%

1= Fresnillo: 0%

1= Glencore: 0%

1= Informa: 0%

1= Mediclinic: 0%**

*as of April 2017; of 76 FTSE 100 companies that had readily available data on executive committees/senior management/leadership.

** as of March 2016

Image credit: Serge Melki/Flickr


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