Women in leadership Taking stock of recent developments

If having more women in senior leadership roles ensures that companies perform better, why is there still such an issue recruiting, retaining and promoting females to the top jobs?

Tough At The Top

In March 2024, The Times reported that research from the universities of Glasgow and Leicester showed companies with more than 30% of female executives are more likely to outperform organisations with a lower gender balance.

Additionally, McKinsey, the consultancy, highlighted that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

There is undoubtedly more that needs to be done to address remaining disparities on opportunity and pay. But, thankfully, there are also signs that attitudes are changing.

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report found that three in four young women now aspire to senior positions, marking a radical change in how leadership is viewed by younger generations.

Denise Wilson, chief executive of the FTSE Women Leaders Review, has described the developments as a “near-revolutionary change in little more than a decade”.

At a headline level, this appears to be the case; almost half of new board appointments (47%) to FTSE 100 companies are filled by women and females in leadership roles is at more than 35%.

But, women are still struggling to land the top job, with just 10 female chief executives running FTSE 100 firms. A report from People Managing People found there are more chief executives named Andrew and Simon (12) than female bosses (10) in the FTSE 100.

The report also noted that female FTSE 100 CEOs are paid 25.3% less than their male counterparts, with the average male CEO salary at £4,270,000, compared with the female average of £3,371,000. (https://www.cityam.com/iwd-there-are-more-ftse-100-ceos-with-these-two-names-than-women/)

Outside the glare of the governance spotlight on Britain’s biggest firms, the picture for female leadership is just as murky.

Squeezed Middle

The latest FTSE Women Leaders Review, published in February 2024, showed that representation of women on 68 of FTSE 350 company boards has increased beyond the 40% target, with almost two years to go until the end of the Review term in 2025.

However, it also highlights evidence there is room for more progress. Some 115 FTSE 350 companies are still below the 33% by 2020 leadership target, and too few women are represented in the top roles, given overall progress.

The Review is a voluntary, independent and business-led initiative, supported by Government and aimed at increasing the representation of women on FTSE 350 Boards, and in their leadership teams.

It is the successor to the Hampton-Alexander and Davies Reviews, both also designed to increase female boardroom representation.

Along with targets to achieve gender balance, progress for women into the most senior roles is also an important measure of success. The Review recommends each FTSE 350 company to appoint at least one woman into the four key roles – chair, chief executive, senior independent director and finance director.

There is some progress being made in representation of female chairs, finance director and senior independent director. But, as with the FTSE 100, there is a real issue at the chief executive level.

The report said: “Undoubtedly the stand-out disappointing statistic amongst a sea of progress at every level, and in most roles, is the number of women CEOs in the FTSE 350 today. In 2011 there were 15 women CEOs in the FTSE 350, and there are just 21 today.”

Funding Gap

According to a report from the government’s own Women-Led High-Growth Enterprise Taskforce (formerly The Rose Review), just 18% of high-growth enterprises include one or more women on the founding team – while all-male founding teams make up 82% of high-growth enterprises.

The report, published in February 2024, is a stark illustration of the struggles faced by female entrepreneurs.

It should come as no surprise then that a move to close the gender gap in high-growth businesses is seen as a way to help drive economic growth.

The Rose Review found that up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men. Just 12 high-growth enterprises – making up only 1.6% of UK businesses – account for a staggering £160bn of turnover, which is 4.5% of the total turnover of British businesses.

Action to increase the number of women-led high-growth businesses complements ongoing work to fulfil government ambitions to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030. It also has a focus on high growth areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI), engineering biology, future telecommunications, semiconductors and quantum technologies.

So what’s stopping more female entrepreneurs starting and building one of the future giants of the corporate scene?

The Taskforce, chaired by Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank, identified some barriers that made it less likely for women to start a business in the first place, such as pervasive gender stereotypes and a lack of representation of female entrepreneurs and role models. These take root at an early age, affecting girls and women throughout their lives.

A recent survey by social enterprise Code First Girls found that 40% of female entrepreneurs have faced gender-based discrimination whilst in a leadership role.

Additionally, when asked about barriers to business leadership, more than half (51%) of Code First Girls’ community stated that confidence is the main challenge facing female entrepreneurs.

These results follow research from Enterprise Nation, which found that initial turnover expectations for female founders of full-time businesses were £10,000 lower than those founded by men, with male founders expected to make £35,106 in the first year, compared with £25,213 for women.

When it comes to high-growth entrepreneurship, one of the most persistent barriers to progress is access to funding. Fewer women apply for funding – and when they do, they are less likely to receive it, and tend to receive significantly less than men.

In her foreword to the Taskforce report, Boden noted: “In 2022, of the UK’s multi-billion-pound venture capital funding, female entrepreneurs routinely received less than a 2% share of the investments made each year.”

The Taskforce has issued a series of voluntary recommendations to remove some of the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs, including venture capital firms setting “their own ambitious voluntary targets for the number of women in senior investment professional roles and on investment committees, in line with industry guidelines”.

It cited research by the British Venture Capital Association that shows just 11% of such positions are held by women and 13% of firms lack a single female member in their investing teams.

According to the government’s latest Small Business Survey, the picture at the small business end of the market is as familiar for female leaders as it is for the FTSE giants and start ups, with just 18% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) being led by women in 2022.

This is a one percentage point fall compared with 2021 and similar to figures since 2015.

The proportion of SMEs with no employees that were owned or led by women was 20% in 2022, around the same as in 2021 and 2020.


The subconscious attitudes and often subtle cognitive shortcuts that shape decision making are as present in wider society as they are in the boardroom.

Even the most ‘progressive’ board must guard against the assumptions and blind spots that help perpetuate barriers to equal participation.

However, there are positive signs of progress. There are now more women non-executives, particularly on nomination committees, which may contribute a different perspective when boards recruit for the top jobs.

Pavita Cooper, UK chair of the 30% Club, the group campaigning to increase gender diversity on boards and senior management teams, wants to see “greater momentum towards gender balance at the top of organisations”.

She added: “There needs to be a lot more intentionality when building the pipeline of women who can fulfil the CEO role. Getting more women into CEO feeder roles will increase the pool of succession candidates, which, in many cases, is all male.”

“Organisations need to double down on efforts to accelerate the progression of women through the pipeline. CEOs and chairs need to drive the focus on closing this gap – failing to do so is simply bad for business.”

About the author

image of Karl West

Karl West

Freelance journalist, podcaster and media adviser. Senior Consultant at The Institute of Directors.

Karl has more than 25 years of experience in the media sector, including several years at The Sunday Times and Daily Mail, where he wrote about business – mainly transport, defence and UK manufacturing industries.

He has a podcast – The All Points West Podcast – that interviews the founders, CEOs and Chairs of small and medium sized UK companies.

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