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The Elusive Female CEO


Progress is seldom linear and this is certainly true with regard to increasing the number of female CEOs.

Yes, ED&I has become much more of a priority for most organisations and substantial progress has been made towards gender balance in some leadership roles. This year, for example the FTSE Women Leaders Review hit its target of 40% female composition on FTSE 350 Boards a year early and Fidelio was pleased to have been accredited for six consecutive years for our contribution to greater gender balance in the Board.

Also in the UK some half of the Head of House roles in Cambridge University, as well as the position of Vice Chancellor, are now held by women. And in the legal profession half of the judges at the Old Bailey, the UK's central Criminal Court, are also female.

In other countries progress, particularly at Board level, is also being made with over 30% of DAX 40 Supervisory Board roles now held by women. This is also true for Fortune 500 Boards. Even conservative societies such as Japan are making some headway with greater diversity in the Boardroom.

But there has been concern that progress towards gender balance in Executive roles is proving much slower. Recent research in the UK pointed to a woeful 9% of FTSE 100 CEOs being female. Not only are the statistics disappointing, there is little evidence that pathways to the top role are becoming more diversified.


The glass ceiling may have been cracked but until we significantly increase the number of female CEOs it will not be broken.

From inception Fidelio has had a deep commitment to increasing gender diversity which is reflected in our track record and accreditation. Based on our first-hand experience and knowledge of what works we advocate that Boards adopt the following three steps to ensure a talent pipeline for the top role which includes strong female candidates:

1. Role Definition - ensure that the role specification for the incoming CEO is neither backward looking nor restrictive.

There is often an expectation that a CEO, in particular for a large public company, needs to have had prior CEO experience. This can too easily translate into a search that is tightly focused on a narrow group of individuals at an equally narrow group of industry peers. The Board and Nomination Committee have a critical role to play in challenging lazy thinking.

Without a doubt CEOs of public companies need to drive the P&L and valuation. In order to do so, today’s CEO also needs to be skilled at stakeholder engagement and have a robust understanding of the reputational building blocks that underpin the license to operate. This has implications for the Nominations Committee which needs to ensure that a Search /appointments process is not being conducted through a rearview mirror.

Fidelio’s work with Boards and Leadership teams shows very clearly that critical, high quality thinking about the role description upfront opens up the candidate pool to much greater diversity. This very much applies to the CEO role as well.

2. Development – support good candidates so that they are set up to succeed.

Well run companies will have in place development and coaching programmes for the leadership team so that they are well placed to navigate the complex challenges at the top of the organisation. In this context there is an opportunity to support senior female candidates with potential to be considered for the CEO role.

A tailored development programme:

  1. creates confidence about the strengths and attributes that an executive brings to the leadership role

  2. addresses perceived gaps in the profile and experience and how these ''gaps'' are best approached

Fidelio's acclaimed A Seat at the Table programme prepares leaders for the Boardroom and includes innovative learning from those sitting on Boards; a clear focus on understanding and addressing shareholder and stakeholder expectations; and developing a presence at the top table. Fidelio has welcomed a number of talented women who are succeeding in major CEO roles and who acknowledged that the programme contributed to their confidence both in role and in career progression. To that end, and based on the success of "A Seat at the Table", Fidelio has now developed a tailored individual programme to support prospective CEOs prepare for the top role.

3. Data and Pipeline – pay close attention to the pipeline so that it delivers greater diversity at all levels.

In all Fidelio’s People Agenda work with Boards, we strongly encourage understanding the data. Whether it is professional services firms seeking to tackle the gender pay gap or global corporates awash with datapoints across multiple jurisdictions, the Board needs to avoid jumping to conclusions.

Instead, the Board must build insight into why, in this instance, women are leaving which ultimately depletes the diversity of talent being considered for the top role. Very often there are cultural issues that arise much earlier than the inflection points that organisations tend to focus on.

Once the real reasons are understood for employees “peeling off”, effective retention programmes can be developed. This pipeline oversight should be a routine priority for an effective Nomination Committee. This is ultimately what will move the dial on the number of female CEOs.


Clearly slow progress towards greater gender balance in the C-suite and in particular the CEO role is bigger than any one company – it’s a problem for business and society. Progress will only be made with a concerted effort – see for example the excellent work of 25x25, as well as the FTSE Women Leaders Review. Fidelio is delighted to see both companies and advisors galvanizing to tackle this frustratingly stubborn challenge.

Fidelio’s focus is building Board and leadership capability to drive value and increasing the number of female CEOs is a core component of our work through:

  1. A Search process that consistently delivers a high level of diversity and successful outcomes, in particular with senior female appointments

  2. A Development programme that is tailored to support potential female candidates to be successful in securing and then occupying the CEO role. (This programme is of course also available for male candidates.)

  3. Board Guidance on the People Agenda in order to understand pipeline challenges and build a retention and development strategy that ultimately results in much greater diversity at the top table.

To find out more about Fidelio’s contribution to increasing gender diversity in leadership roles, please get in touch at


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Gillian - Karran Cumberlege

Head of

Board Advisory

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