Women still find it hard to smash glass ceiling

Average chief executive is still a fiftysomething man as women struggle to get on boards

Ambitions of being a chief executive? Forget it if you're female.

The average chief executive of a leading British company remains a 53-year-old male with a background in finance, according to the annual Robert Half CEO tracker.

The research, published today, shows that there are just three female chief executives in the FTSE 100 index. The percentage of women joining boards generally has declined slightly to 17.3 per cent from 17.4 per cent.

The lingering inability of women to gain significant access to Britain's boardrooms comes despite efforts by the former Standard Chartered chief executive Lord Davies to get companies to voluntarily improve the situation. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has threatened to look again at quotas if a target of 25 per cent female representation on boards is not met by 2015.

The FTSE 100 lost two women chief executives last year as Dame Majorie Scardino stepped down at the Financial Times publisher, Pearson, and Cynthia Carroll quit the miner Anglo American, finally leaving a month ago. The budget airline easyJet's promotion to the top flight meant Carolyn McCall joined the Imperial Tobacco boss, Alison Cooper, and Burberry fashion chief, Angela Ahrendts, in a lonely trio of female leaders.

For women hankering after smashing the glass ceiling, starting out as an accountant might be the only way forward, because 52 per cent of current CEOs have an accountancy or financial management background. That compares to 21 per cent with a background in engineering or natural resources, which shouldn't come as a big surprise given the high number of natural resources companies that have found homes in London.

A further 9 per cent come from a retail/hospitality background, with 8 per cent starting out in marketing or advertising, 4 per cent in technology and 6 per cent in other industries.

Despite the transition being frowned upon on governance grounds, it is still the case that the path to the CEO's office often runs through the finance director's. Some 12 per cent of FTSE bosses moved to the top job after first being finance director at the same company.

While Oxford and Cambridge universities dominate in government, the research found that companies are hiring from a more diverse range of backgrounds. The number of "Oxbridge" graduates at the top has fallen by 28 per cent, from 21 in 2012 to 15 in 2013. But there are few youngsters, with 81 CEOs aged at least 50.

The research was done in March, using information on corporate websites and annual reports, with follow-up calls made to companies where there were gaps.

Phil Sheridan, UK managing director of Robert Half, which specialises in accountancy and finance, said: "The risk and regulation agenda is driving demand for those with finance skills who can oversee all operational reporting groups within a business. We anticipate that this demand will carry on for the foreseeable future, which means that finance continues to be a great career path for those looking to climb to the very top of the career ladder."

On the lack of diversity, he urged companies to move faster, saying: "The diversity mix is beginning to change but perhaps not quickly enough. Great talent can be found and nurtured across the gender, background and age spectrum, and companies should review their succession planning and recruitment strategies to ensure they can leverage the range of talent available."

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