Even the most progressive countries struggle to promote women to CEO

Some CEOs in Denmark.
Some CEOs in Denmark.
Image: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters
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The challenge of getting women into the most senior hands-on management roles at companies has been highlighted by a new report, which shows that even a country with some of the most forward-looking gender equality policies can have no women CEOs at its biggest firms.

The report found that Denmark, which has a number of guidelines in place to try to tackle gender imbalances in the workplace, has no female CEOs in its top 20 companies, the OMX Copenhagen 20. The report was released today by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, which looked at the indeces of leading companies in 13 European countries and the US. Italy also had no female CEOs, while the average number of women in CEO positions across the surveyed companies was 4.9%.

Globally, progress has been made in recent years getting women into senior roles, particularly positions on boards. Some countries like Norway have opted for mandatory quotas, while others have made progress through less coercive policies. Denmark in 2013 introduced targets, rather than binding quotas, for getting woman onto boards, and required companies to create policies for recruiting and developing female managers.

Getting women into the role of CEO is trickier, because it entails addressing the entire pipeline. Most chief executive positions, the report found, are filled from internal promotions rather than outside hires. That means a company needs to promote women through the ranks and, crucially retain them at common career crunch points. Inflexibility around childbirth and early years, for example, has been shown to have a major impact on a woman’s ability to stay in the workforce, and therefore on their subsequent pay (pdf) and leadership opportunities.

Of the countries surveyed, the UK scored best, with 8.2% of CEO positions in its FTSE 100 index (admittedly, five times bigger than Denmark’s index) held by women.