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The Rise of the Female Chairman

[London] — 16 November 2015 —

  • Dramatic rise in the number of female chairmen in the FTSE 150 over the last two years
  • UK boards importing international female directors
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic representation on boards today is where female representation stood in 1998

New research from Spencer Stuart, the executive search and leadership consulting firm, shows a significant increase in women taking the helm of FTSE 150 boards over the last two years. The next real diversity challenge is black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation, with such directors forming a tiny proportion of the UK’s FTSE 150 board members.

The Spencer Stuart 2015 UK Board Index is a comprehensive review of governance practice in the largest 150 companies in the FTSE rankings, providing a valuable indication of the state of boardroom health during 2014-15. The Board Index is supplemented by further research into gender diversity on the executive committees of the FTSE 100.

There have never been more women at the helm of FTSE 150 boards. Seven female chairmen leading the UK’s largest companies’ boards represents an increase of 350% compared with 2013, when there were only two female chairmen. If the current rate were to continue, there would be 25 female chairmen in the FTSE 150 by 2017. This progress is supported by a host of female chairmen at prominent organisations, such as Baroness Vadera at Santander UK and Dame Colette Bowe at the Banking Standards Board.

Manjit Wolstenholme, chairman of Provident Financial, comments, “Of course it represents real progress that I am now one of a growing number of women chairing the boards of some of the UK’s biggest companies, but we are certainly not in a position to say – ‘job done’. We urgently need many more women and black and ethnic minorities at the top if our boards are to reflect the diversity of our workforce and our customers.”

On the face of it, there has been solid progress in female board membership over the last year, with the top tier of the FTSE meeting Lord Davies’ target of 25% female representation on boards in July. But the 2015 UK Board Index suggests that the supply of future directorial talent will be constrained by the small number of women rising to the top of the executive ranks. At 29.5%, the proportion of female non-executives in the FTSE 100 is far higher than the proportion of female executive committee members (17.2%).

According to Will Dawkins, who leads the Spencer Stuart UK Board Practice, “Real effort will be needed to make British boardrooms truly diverse because the future corporate pipeline of female board directors as a whole is limited. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that UK boards are having to look overseas for talented female directors, with non-British directors accounting for 41% of all women on boards, compared to 33% of men on boards. Appointing women from abroad has clear benefits from a diversity perspective. These figures indicate both the importance of international talent to the UK economy, and that boards are casting a wider net. But the findings are also cause for concern if boards are increasingly looking beyond these shores to find women with requisite experience.”

The moderate progress in increasing the number of women on boards has not been replicated across other underrepresented groups. In response to the Government’s stated intention to encourage more ethnic diversity in the boardroom, for the first time Spencer Stuart’s Board Index reviews the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) board members in the top 150 FTSE companies. It finds that only 78 directors, or 5% across the entire FTSE 150, have a BAME background. Excluding companies based in emerging markets, that number comes down to 58 directors (3.9%). Only 1.9% of directors with UK nationality have a BAME background.[1] Will Dawkins adds, “It is right that ethnic diversity is now a focus, and these figures show there is indeed much work to be done. In percentage terms, BAME representation on boards today is at the level of female representation in 1998. Boards must apply some of the lessons of increasing gender diversity to the BAME question if real progress is to be made.”

About Spencer Stuart

At Spencer Stuart, we know how much leadership matters. We are trusted by organizations around the world to help them make the senior-level leadership decisions that have a lasting impact on their enterprises. Through our executive search, board and leadership advisory services, we help build and enhance high-performing teams for select clients ranging from major multinationals to emerging companies to nonprofit institutions.

Privately held since 1956, we focus on delivering knowledge, insight and results though the collaborative efforts of a team of experts — now spanning 56 offices, 30 countries and more than 50 practice specialties. Boards and leaders consistently turn to Spencer Stuart to help address their evolving leadership needs in areas such as senior-level executive search, board recruitment, board effectiveness, succession planning, in-depth senior management assessment and many other facets of organizational effectiveness. For more information on Spencer Stuart, please visit

Nick Cosgrove / Rebecca Lum
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