Women EU Leaders: Out of Stock?

A new study finds only 3% of retailers in Europe are run by women. Experts cite an intriguing reason.

When it comes to Europe’s retail sector, women dominate. Not only do women account for the bulk of consumers, but they also make up two-thirds of the retail labor force. But guess who is not running the store in nearly any of the major retail companies on the continent?

According to a new report tracking the companies in the FTSE 350 index, women run only 3% of Europe’s 87 main retailers, making it among the worst-performing sectors for women in top roles. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, not a single retail goods company in the FTSE 350 is woman-led.

The figures are surprisingly not only because of women’s widespread role in the sector, but also because both Europe and the UK have generally been progressive on many gender issues. Experts say that may be a surprising factor here, however.

According to Sarah Lim, Korn Ferry’s managing director and sector lead for retail in EMEA and head of the firm’s UK Consumer practice, Europe and the UK have been aggressively tapping women CEOs to board roles, dating back to an early movement to boost gender diversity on boards. The result has created an unfortunate state of limbo for the corner-office job. “Unfortunately, we’ve hit that time when more women have come out of the CEO role before the next generation are ready,” Lim says.

Back in 2010, a consortium of board chairs and CEOs in the UK launched the 30% Club, intending to triple the percentage of women on corporate boards by 2020. The global campaign hit its UK target two years ahead of schedule and now has set a new goal: tripling the percentage of women chairs on FTSE 350 boards by 2023.

Experts say the new shortage revives a critical issue across many sectors: filling succession pipelines with a diverse slate of candidates ready for C-suite prime time. That, of course, may only be harder during a pandemic, when the number of firings far surpass hirings. Experts say firms may need to recruit more heavily from other industries and internally to provide more opportunities for women to be exposed to other parts of the business, setting better career pathways. “We have to continue to work harder to bring the next generation through, and more quickly now,” Lim says.

For its part, the United States also has little bragging rights on gender diversity in the retail sector, with one study suggesting women run less than 10% of retailers on the S&P 500. Still, Melanie Kusin, vice chair in Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice, says European retailers could look to the US for a holistic blueprint on how to recruit, assess, and develop women leaders.

Indeed, studies such as Korn Ferry’s seminal report, Women CEOs Speak, have identified the unique characteristics, skills, and qualities of female corporate leaders running US-based companies, providing “a mechanism to understand how to build career paths to become enterprise leaders in a calculated way,” Kusin says. “The basics are there on how women lead differently and what they need to be more successful, so you could help develop them more productively,” she adds.

In the end, experts say, it’s a business imperative for companies to increase diversity in their C-suites. After all, according to a recent S&P Global Market Intelligence report, organizations run by women see greater stock price performance compared to the market average. “Strengthening diversity strengthens the business,” Kusin says.