Tackling the gender imbalance between boards and executive teams

4 min

Over the years, so much has been written about gender diversity in the boardrooms of the world’s largest companies. Board diversity is celebrated in annual reports and, for many companies, achieving a 40% female ratio on a main board is now viewed as a ‘healthy balance’.

All this focus on the main board however is detracting from a much bigger issue – the woeful state of gender balance in the top leadership teams of the world’s largest businesses.

Our recent analysis of the 2019 Fortune 100 shows that only 25% of the overall leadership population is female (i.e. the top operational / executive leadership layer of a business, below the main board), and a measly 9% of commercial and business roles are held by women. This 9% figure is especially staggering when you consider that almost 60% of CHROs in the Fortune 100 are female.

Given gender diversity has been such a hot topic for the last 15 years at least, this ‘progress’ is excruciatingly slow.

Heading across the Atlantic to the UK, it is a very similar picture in the FTSE 100. Whilst 55% of CHROs are female, only 10% of commercial leadership roles are occupied by women.

There are of course a number of well-documented factors that have led to the high proportion of female CHROs on leadership teams; the largest being the simple matter of access to talent. HR has traditionally been viewed as a female-dominated profession, so over time perhaps it is only natural that a high number of females rise to hold HR leadership roles.

But now that it is commonplace, particularly amongst top global businesses, for HR to hold a seat at the top table, should it be possible for this position of influence to do much more to accelerate the promotion of women into business-leading roles?

What about female representation within the Fortune’s big names?

Looking at the very top of the Fortune list, it is a bleak picture indeed.

At #1, Walmart can name just 3 females in commercial roles, out of its leadership team of 40 (and only 9 females in total in the leadership team). The next companies in the list (Exxon, Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, United Health Group, McKesson) have no female representation in commercial roles at all.

In fact, this group of six companies have just ten females overall out of a combined leadership population of 60. Hardly surprising then that female roles models are still in such short supply.

#33 on the list, US health insurer Anthem Health, also deserve a mention. They are the only company in both the Fortune and FTSE 100s to have a leadership team with a female majority. Perhaps helped by being one of only 15 companies on either list to have a female CEO, even then this majority is only slight, at 57% or 4 out of 7 roles.  The next highest ratio can be found at #18, with JPMorgan Chase having a 50% representation of females on the leadership team, two of whom hold business unit CEO roles.

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