Diversity and Inclusion  

Mentoring is key to getting more women into senior roles

Mentoring is key to getting more women into senior roles

How have the women business leaders of today made it to the top?

Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, released every year, covers women in leadership positions in politics, government, finance, business and philanthropy.

It is compiled using four metrics: money (GDP, revenue, assets under management, or net worth), media mentions, impact (employee count/population) and spheres of influence.

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Of this year’s top 100 women, 45 are chief executives of major companies. 

This population can give us some clues: 24 per cent of the top 45 female chief executives found the best way to lead a company was to start one. 

This is disproportionately the case in Asia, where five out of nine women are leading companies they founded. 

Of the remainder, 20 per cent were perhaps born to lead; in any event they now run their family businesses.

Key points

  • Women in leadership roles are found in investment and technology companies
  • Mentoring is important, as are non-executive director roles
  • The ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon exists, but women have risen to the challenge

While this does not sound like the most progressive statistic, perhaps it is a form of progress that fathers are now as likely to consider their daughters as their sons to succeed them. 


Women are most likely to be found leading the largest investment, technology or consumer financial services companies. 

However, it is a fallacy to think that women are strongly represented at the head of other consumer businesses, in spite of the fact that around 50 per cent of consumers tend to be female. 

While four women lead energy/mining companies and three lead major aerospace/defence companies, none of the 45 lead retail or consumer goods businesses, for example. 

The UK boasts Emma Walmsley (pictured), chief executive of GSK, who is the only woman to lead a major global pharmaceutical business and is the sole Brit running a UK-headquartered company featured in the list. 

Including Ms Walmsley, there are now six female chief executives in the FTSE 100; this is fewer than there are men called David. 

For this to change any time soon, the proportion of women being appointed to executive committee roles – the key launchpad for chief executive successors – needs to increase. 

The November 2019 Hampton Alexander Review found these committees are 23 per cent female, with women comprising 32 per cent of newcomers in the previous year. 

For the UK’s target of 33 per cent female executive committee membership to be reached in 2020, this appointment rate would need to shift dramatically, to nearly 50 per cent. Despite the best efforts of UK businesses, this is a stretch.

However, after 10 intensive years of focus following on from the Davies Review, we do at least now know where the crampons are that can provide the fastest route up the organisational ‘glass pyramid’ – where there are too many women at the bottom and too few at the top.  

To aid the progression to more senior roles, formal sponsorship programmes in which a senior colleague provides developmental opportunities, including those above an individual’s current level, and builds the case for promotion, are important.