Why it's harder for women to get into the corner office

A report suggests that most senior female execs aren't getting the kind of experience required of future CEOs...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Are women at a disadvantage when it comes to CEO appointments? That’s the suggestion by exec search firm Egon Zehnder, which has been studying the background of the FT’s (just-published) Top 50 Women in Business. Its research uncovered two interesting titbits. One, a disproportionately high number came from line management background, as opposed to a support function – and the latter is much more common for senior female execs. And two, the number of women on the list from family-owned or entrepreneurial businesses is much higher than you’d expect. Which suggests that women who want the top job might be better off working for themselves…

According to Egon Zehnder’s analysis, 47 of the top 50 had previous line management experience. Since these women are so high-achieving, that rather suggests that this is the best route to the CEO job. Yet of the relatively small number of women in senior executive board-level positions across Europe – a measly 1 in 25, according to some studies – less than 30% come from this background. The rest are in support functions, which, it seems, is not considered such a good grounding for the top job.

The other interesting point was that six of the women work in a family business, and nine for a firm they’ve built themselves. That’s 15 out of the 50, a much higher proportion than you’d expect (given that family and entrepreneurial businesses make up such a small proportion of big companies as a whole) – suggesting that women’s best route to the top is if they actually own the place.

Egon Zehnder has another theory, too. It suggests that fewer women are able to move around the world running businesses – and that this sort of international experience is considered a prerequisite for a CEO. However, it reckons family businesses might be a bit more relaxed about this sort of thing, as long as it ensures the next generation makes it to the top. So family firms may be able to teach our biggest businesses a thing or two about truly flexible working…

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