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Cherchez la femme: FTSE 100 gains seventh female CEO

By: Mary Fjelstad, Senior Research Analyst

Today not only marks the last day of Women’s History Month, but also the eve of Emma Walmsley’s first day at the helm of GlaxoSmithKline. While many have applauded the selection of the first woman to lead a top-tier UK pharmaceutical company, the addition of Ms. Walmsley increases the percentage of FTSE 100 companies led by women to a mere 7%. This seems an appropriate moment to report on the United Kingdom’s progress on women’s representation in top corporate roles.

The growth in the number of women leading the largest 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange is very recent, which partly explains why the number is still so low. Ms. Walmsley joins just six others in this elite group: three took charge in 2010, with the remaining four assuming their posts from 2014 to the present.

FTSE 100 companies with female CEOs

Source: FTSE Russell, data as of March 31, 2017.

FTSE 100 women CEOs are represented in just five of the 10 FTSE UK sectors. Three of the women run Consumer Services companies, while Consumer Goods, Industrials, Utilities and Healthcare claim one female CEO apiece. This leaves five UK sectors without a single female CEO leading a constituent company. Among the five are Oil & Gas and Technology, sectors where women CEOs are also underrepresented in our US indexes.

Britain has been noteworthy in its efforts to elevate women to leadership roles. In 2011, British governmental leaders and groups first set specific goals to increase female representation, focusing on companies in the FTSE 100 and the FTSE 350. Progress towards these goals was to be monitored and reported on annually. In 2011, Lord Davies, then UK government minister for trade, investment, small business and infrastructure, set the first target: companies in the FTSE 100 index were to achieve 25% representation of women on executive boards by 2015. The goal was achieved by 2015, and the percentage currently holds steady at 25%. A new objective was also set in 2015 for the FTSE 350, targeting 33% female representation on the boards of constituent companies by 2020.[1]

Why would the British government take such an interest in boosting women’s representation in corporate leadership roles? How might the country and economy benefit? These questions are perhaps answered by recent research suggesting that as female business leadership roles increase, so, too, does overall paid female employment at all levels. This could in turn contribute to growth in GDP. McKinsey & Co. estimates that for Britain, sharp gains in female employment could add £150 billion by 2025 to UK GDP over current standard forecasts.[2] Improved economic output is forecasted to impact all regions, deriving from increases in overall female employment, the number of hours women work and female employment in more productive sectors. 

It’s important to note that the UK goals and targets—though set and reported on by the government—are voluntary. So what’s the incentive for companies to comply and work toward increasing female representation in boardrooms? Again, recent studies suggest that companies with greater female representation on corporate boards may perform better, although research in this area is ongoing. Studies have shown that for companies to reap benefits, more than one woman on a board is needed; indeed, a threshold of three has been suggested for real impact.[3]

While these governmental initiatives have focused on female representation on executive boards, they’ve yet to set targets for the number of women CEOs. This might be due in part to very little research having been published to date on the potential benefits of female CEOs. The reason behind this lack of research highlights the larger inequality picture: robust research requires a certain sample size and time horizon, and we haven’t had that many female CEOs running companies over long enough periods to produce statistical estimates of their effect.

So as Emma Walmsley joins the ranks of FTSE 100 women CEOs, advocates for gender equality can only hope this is the beginning of a growing trend. Fingers crossed, in time we may have the numbers we need to gauge their significance.


[1]See for full documentation of the 2011 initiative; see also “Improving the Gender Balance on British Boards: Women on Boards Davies Review Five Year Summary,” October 2015 at; as well as “FTSE Women Leaders: Improving gender balance in FTSE Leadership,” Hampton-Alexander Review, November 2016.

[2]McKinsey & Co., “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United Kingdom, September 2016

[3]See Torchia, M. et al., 2011, “Women Directors on Corporate Boards: From Tokenism to Critical Mass,” Journal of Business Ethics, 102:2, pp. 299-317; and, Konrad, A. M. et al., 2008, “Critical Mass: The Impact of Three or More Women on Corporate Boards,” Organizational Dynamics, 37:2, p. 145.


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