Top corporate jobs still ‘out of reach’ for women despite board progress

Very little progress in the number of women taking CEO roles over last decade.

Top corporate jobs such as CEO or chair appear to be largely still “out of reach” for women despite progress on the share of women on boards over the last decade, according to research from Morningstar DBRS.

In the report Women in Government and on Corporate Boards: Signs of Progress, Morningstar analysed sampled companies from the 2023 edition of the Forbes Global 2000 – a list of the largest 2,000 companies in the world – over the last decade to 2022.

It found at large corporations the average share of women on the boards of directors has doubled in that time.

European countries Belgium, Netherlands and Germany demonstrated the strongest progress on the average number of women on boards at large corporates with increases of 23%, 19% and 19% respectively. The UK ranked eighth with 17% growth.

“Overall, board representation has markedly improved. Female board participation at large corporations in our sample increased by 19 percentage points,” the report said. “On average, female board representation for the largest corporations ranges from 33% in the United States and 41% in Sweden to only 16% in Japan, but the improvement in Japan is from a very low base of 2%.

Morningstar also noted “material improvement” in the financial sector; across 63 European banks women represented 28% of boards members while this figure climbed to 40% in the US.

See also: Are women more effective in sustainable finance than men?

The increase in the share of women representation on boards over the last decade appears to be tied to diversity requirements placed on listed companies, observed Morningstar. It pointed to the EU’s mandatory quota-based directive, known as the Women on Board Directive, which was implemented in 2022, and the UK regulator’s “comply or explain” model when it updated its diversity and inclusion policy in the same year.

Women CEOs are ‘rare’

However, the top jobs are still “out of reach” for many women as Morningstar noted females in the position of corporate leaders such as chair, CEO or CFO, for example, are “rare”.

“Despite the progress, overall, we are still far from equity of male and female roles and this is especially the case for top positions in business.

“The share of women taking the top jobs in business (chair, CFO or CEO) is also low and increased very little over the last decade, with the outcomes even less impressive for smaller companies. In the years since Carly Fiorina became the first woman to lead a top-20 Fortune 500 company as CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, precious little progress has been made. As of 2022, only six of the 110 large corporations in our sample were led by a woman.”

It also noted it is rare for women to take on the top jobs at the largest transatlantic banks, indicating the progress still to be made in the financial sector. Of the eight largest US banks, only the CEO of Citigroup identifies as a woman, while out of 63 banks in Europe, only 8% of CEOs were women in 2022.

“This progress is not only desirable for reasons of basic fairness, but academic research has begun to uncover the tangible financial gains from unlocking this underutilized pool of talent,” the report said. “The growing body of literature that shows the advantages of having more women in leadership positions suggests that as the size of the pool of women in leadership roles expands, initially among advanced economies and ideally across the globe, there may be vast financial and economic benefits. This in turn could materialise into stronger credit fundamentals in companies.”

Meanwhile, a report published by Indigo and Addidat has revealed that less than one in six board positions at AIM quoted companies are held by women, with only 26% of AIM firms having more than one female director.

AIM firms with the lowest market capitalisation have the fewest female directors. For those with a market cap of £10m or less, just 10% of directorships are held by women in 2024.

This story first appeared in our sister publication, PA future.


Natalie Kenway

Natalie is editor in chief at MA Financial covering ESG Clarity, Portfolio Adviser and International Adviser. She was previously global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist...