In UK Retail, a Surge in Female CEOs

Women now account for 35% of retail CEOs in Britain. Will the percentage keep nudging upward?

It was a goal set long ago, one that has been accomplished impressively. In 2010, British financier Baroness Helena Morrissey founded the 30% Club, with the objective of placing women in at least 30% of board seats of the UK’s largest public companies—those in the FTSE 100 stock index. That was achieved by 2018.

That change has apparently filtered down to the corner office—at least in one particular sector: retail. Last year, women accounted for 35% of new CEO appointments at retail companies, the highest ever, according to new report from Korn Ferry. That’s up from 5% in 2012. "Adding women CEOs has been a constant theme of the last couple of years," says Sarah Lim, Korn Ferry's managing director of the Consumer Board and CEO Services practice and author of the report.

These changes are happening now because of a confluence of events last year. Almost half the CEO slots that switched in 2023 did so due to disappointing profits, according to the KF report. Other reasons included ownership changes, family transitions, or retirements. However, that led to almost half the new appointments in luxury/fashion businesses, including department stores. That likely accounts for why a larger than usual portion of the new CEOs were women, Lim says. “Fashion tends to attract more women than DIY,” she says.

Still, experts warn that more female representation in the corner office won’t happen overnight. The pipeline of potential CEO candidates tends to develop over the course of decades, as budding executives need time and mentoring to get experience in multiple roles across the business, says Donna Herdsman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of diversity, equity, and inclusion for EMEA in London. “These high-potential candidates need opportunities to demonstrate what they can achieve,” she says.

Which means, of course, that retailers need to get more women in the pipeline. If more men are hired from business schools or colleges, then the odds will be stacked against women. One part of the solution is to make a given company more attractive to women, for instance, by reducing barriers to their hiring, says Stuart Richards, Korn Ferry’s sector leader, consumer products in the UK and EMEA. Employers might consider skills-based recruitment instead of hiring based on graduating from certain top colleges, Richards says. “Skills tell employers whether people can fundamentally do the job,” he says.

Herdsman says it’s important for women to have so-called sponsorship from a senior staff member to succeed. Such a sponsor can advise the individual on which experiences or roles to pursue. Perhaps most importantly, a mentor can help rising stars avoid trouble. “Even if you make a mistake that anyone could make, you need support,” she says.

Ultimately, CEO choices rest with the board of directors. When the lead independent director and the senior independent director become women, the pendulum swings toward female CEO candidates, Lim says. “It becomes more natural for the board to consider women,” she says. “It happens over time.”


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