Why Kingfisher’s new female CEO is the mark of real reform


The news that Véronique Laury will replace Sir Ian Cheshire as chief executive of FTSE 100 company Kingfisher in January next year shone light on some depressing statistics for women in business.

While Laury’s appointment signifies a 25% increase in the number of female FTSE 100 CEOs, the actual number only stands at five. That means 95% of the UK’s leading 100 corporations are run by men.

Taken together with a recent National Management Salary survey which revealed that four decades after the Equal Pay Act, female bosses still earn 35% less than their male equivalents, the shortage of women CEOs leading the UK’s biggest companies shows there is still a long way to go to achieve equality for women at senior levels in UK businesses.

Anyone scouring the headlines over the summer may find this hard to believe. First there was a fresh wave of women waltzing into top positions in government, then Glencore’s appointment of former mining executive Patrice Merrin historically brought all-male FTSE 100 boards to an end. London was aflutter with the anticipation of our country’s most monolithic organisations finally recognising the value of women. But it turns out the celebrations were premature. In reality summer 2014’s March of the Women boiled down to a smattering of new female cabinet members, peers and FTSE 100 non-executives.

It might come as a surprise therefore that I find myself frustrated by the lack of media buzz surrounding Kingfisher’s new recruit.

There’s no denying the fact that only 5% of FTSE 100 executives are women is shameful. But the appointment of any new female executive director should be a cause for celebration.

What we have to realise is that there is a big difference between non-executive and executive roles. Non-executive directors are no doubt influential, but their role is more passive, advisory; intended to make board decisions more measured.

The chief executive however is an organisation’s lifeblood and driving force as well as its public face. Kingfisher, Europe’s largest home improvement retail group, has selected Laury not as a careful bit of non-exec window-dressing, but to stand at the helm of its business operations responsible for developing and delivering strategic and commercial objectives for a company with sales of over £11.1 billion.

Since 2010, we have seen five ambitious and above all qualified women storm into top executive positions in the FTSE 100. Laury joins Imperial Tobacco CEO Alison Cooper, Easyjet’s Carolyn McCall, Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield and Royal Mail’s Moya Greene as yet another emblem of success for women in business and women who have smashed the glass ceiling with their own talent and an unparalleled CV.

Here’s hoping that these famous five are merely the vanguard of a new generation of women sweeping into the top jobs at the UK’s – and the world’s – biggest companies. And if this sounds like wishful thinking, a recent study from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills revealed that women are expected to dominate highly-skilled jobs, taking two-thirds of those created in the next six years as their qualification levels improve quicker than men’s. By 2020, 49% of women will have degree-level qualifications (rising from 38% currently) against 44% of men. The picture draws parallels with this summer’s GCSE results where 73% of girls achieved grade C or above compared to 64.3% of boys.

It’s not useful or constructive to have a childish “girls are better than boys” debate – the most successful companies have a good gender balance throughout. However it’s clear from these figures that women have the potential to play a much bigger role in running UK businesses big and small. The current lack of women at a senior level in business and politics, combined with the gender pay gap at managerial level, is a serious matter of concern to everyone who champions diversity and equality in the work place. Governments, businesses, shareholders, the media and women ourselves must do more to campaign to ensure that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ forecast becomes a reality rather than an unfulfilled prediction. UK plc needs us.

Frances Dickens is founder and CEO of Astus Group.