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CFO most diverse C-suite role amid patchy progress

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 Mar 2024

White men still hold three-quarters of chair, CEO or CFO roles across FTSE 350 and more than half of board and executive committee positions, study finds.

Women and ethnic minorities are taking B roads to leadership roles in the UK’s largest companies, but the CFO is one of the most diverse of the C-suite roles across all sectors, according to recent research.

Preferred pathways to the top – often via sales or commercial roles – continue to be dominated by men. In contrast, women tend to hold people-facing roles that don’t offer the same natural progression to the most senior roles, or take longer to get there, according to the latest Business Leaders Index by recruitment consultancy Green Park.

White men continue to hold three-quarters of Top 3 roles – chair, CEO or CFO – across the FTSE 350 and more than half of Top 20 roles (that is, board and executive committee), barring a few exceptions. White women, meanwhile, hold a third of FTSE 350 Top 20 roles.

The role that has seen the greatest change over time in the Top 3 for ethnic minority representation is the CFO position, rising from 2% in 2013 to 10% in 2023. CFOs also had the highest representation of women (23%), up from 6% in 2013, closely followed by the chair (17%) and CEO (9%). 

Women rise up the ranks

Meanwhile, there has been a substantial increase in representation of women across both non-executive and executive roles in the past 10 years; non-executive representation has almost doubled and executive role representation has almost tripled since 2014 across the FTSE 100.

However, the report shows how FTSE 250 companies lag behind their FTSE 100 counterparts, with Green Park speculating that this may be because government and regulators have been focused on the largest organisations for a longer period, including bringing in measures such as gender pay gap reporting. 

Although there has been an increase in overall ethnic minority representation at all levels of seniority for the first time since Green Park’s analysis began in 2013, ethnic minority numbers are still in low percentages for most roles. Ethnic minority representation across the Top 3 roles in FTSE 250 organisations is half that of the FTSE 100.

Analysis shows a notable uptick after targets were set by the Parker Review. Ethnic minority numbers doubled between 2020 and 2023, with the BlackLivesMatter movement having a significant impact.

Black representation down

However, the report warns that huge divergence is emerging among minority ethnocultural groups. Across the FTSE 350, Hindu and Sikh are the most prevalent ethnocultural group in the Top 3, Top 20 and Pipeline; in contrast, Black representation is poor by comparison, and at the top level has fallen since 2019.

Sir Trevor Phillips, Chair of Green Park and former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says the diversity picture based on analysis of a decade’s worth of data has changed significantly. “Much of this has been driven by companies that recognise that in a tight labour market, attention to diversity and inclusion has proven to be crucial to getting the best performance out of the most talented people.” 

But the picture remains patchy, Phillips warns. “Some sectors have embraced change and sought it actively; others have remained passive, assuming that things will change with time and without focused effort. They won’t. Success doesn’t come from hoping for better outcomes; it follows determined, intentional evidence-based action.” 

Raj Tulsiani, CEO of Green Park, says: “What emerges from our analysis over the past decade is that government intervention – including the Parker Review and FTSE Women Leaders Review, together with the threat of regulation – has had a significant effect. It has created an environment where organisations feel the need to do something. 

“If readers of this report could take one thing away, it is that there isn’t a single way through all of this. Like anything, it takes commitment, accountability and a genuine understanding of the value it brings.” 

The report examines the backgrounds of 16,426 individuals in total across the FTSE 350 split into three tiers of seniority: Top 3 (chair, CEO and CFO), Top 20 (board and executive committee including CEO, CFO, chair) and Pipeline (senior leaders who report into the Top 20) to understand how sustainable diversity, equity and inclusion progress is.

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