‘You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s a common refrain among those calling for greater diversity in business leadership.
There certainly isn’t much diversity on display in the FTSE 100. Only 11 people of colour, eight (soon to be nine) women and no known LGBT or disabled people lead the nation’s largest plcs. What’s been less clear is whether the standard blue-chip CEO profile – that of a middle-aged straight white man with no disabilities – is just as prevalent across the full spectrum of British business.
To find out, Raconteur has analysed 2021 census data on the self-reported age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability status of the 122,500 people in England and Wales who stated their occupation as “chief executive or senior official”.
We’ve found that women, disabled people and certain ethnic minorities are under-represented at this level, while CEOs aged under 30 are – understandably – exceedingly rare. But the proportion of gay and lesbian people in leadership roles is actually slightly higher than that in the general population.
“There are still people [at the top of businesses] who want to recruit someone who looks like them, thinks like them and has had the same experiences as them,” notes Joanna Allen, CEO of British snack brand Graze. “By default, that excludes a lot of individuals.”
The CEO gender gap
Much has been made of the gender imbalance among the UK’s biggest listed firms. BT Group’s Allison Kirkby is scheduled to become the ninth female FTSE 100 chief executive before February 2024, which would make her only the 22nd woman ever to hold such a job if no other female CEO is appointed in the meantime. While the picture is more balanced across all businesses in England and Wales, men still far outnumber women at the top. Just under three-quarters of all CEOs are male, according to the census data.
The gender gap is wider among older leaders. Between the ages of 20 and 39, more than a third of CEOs are women. The proportion drops steadily with age to fewer than 10% of over-75s.
Several contributing factors are at play, according to Hephzi Pemberton, founder and CEO of Equality Group, a diversity consultancy. These include “gender bias about who makes a great leader; who gets certain career advice that sets aspirations; and how interview processes and networks operate. This is before you get to the structural challenges of unequal pay, the cost of childcare and unequal caring responsibilities.”
How many CEOs are from ethnic minorities?
Fewer than a fifth (17.8%) of CEOs have an ethnic background other than “white British, Irish and other”. To account for the different numbers of people from each ethnic minority who live in this country, we’ve compared the total of all over-16s in each group with the number who are business leaders. By this measure, most such groups – including people with mixed ethnicities – are proportionally better represented at the CEO level than the white British majority.
But the picture becomes more complex when looking at the more detailed ethnic subcategories applied by the census. For instance, although white Irish people are almost two times more likely than average to be CEOs, white people who identify as “gypsy or Irish traveller“ are three times less likely. Likewise, Chinese people are over-represented at CEO level, whereas those who identify as Bangladeshi or Pakistani are among the least represented.
Such findings support the case for rethinking blanket ethnic diversity targets – for instance, “increasing the number of BAME leaders“. Critics argue that the use of such generalised objectives can obscure the continuing under-representation of people from specific disadvantaged groups.
Only 5.4% of the nation’s CEOs are women from ethnic minorities. Although the gender gap at this level can be seen in all ethnicities, women are significantly better represented in certain groups. Well over a third (37.9%) of Black business leaders are female, for instance. Roughly the same proportion applies in the “mixed or multiple ethnicities” category too.
Radha Vyas is the co-founder and CEO of adventure travel company Flash Pack. She recalls that there was “a definite glass ceiling for women of colour when I started my career. As an Asian woman, I knew early on that no one was going to give me any power. If I wanted it, I’d need to go out there and grab it.”
People with disabilities constitute more than one-sixth (17.8%) of the population. By contrast, the census data shows that only 6.3% of CEOs deem themselves disabled in some way. Of those, a mere 1,350 consider themselves “limited a lot”.
Research published by EY in 2018 found that 80% of those leaders reporting that they’d had “lived experience” of a disability had not disclosed this fact at work. If that proportion still holds, it would mean that a vanishingly small number of CEOs are open about having a disability that significantly limits them.
That makes Steve Ingham, who was one of the country’s most prominent disabled CEOs until he left recruitment firm PageGroup last year, one of the very few who’s spoken openly about his disability since 2019, when he become a wheelchair user as the result of a skiing accident.
He told The Times in 2021 that most disabled people “are overcoming significantly bigger challenges – probably daily – than somebody who is able-bodied. People who have had to overcome challenges have usually learnt quite a lot from that and therefore have that to offer.”
CEOs by sexual orientation
The census also reveals how many business leaders are LGBT people: 3.8% of CEOs report being gay, lesbian or bisexual, or having another non-straight sexuality. That’s slightly more than those groups’ prevalence in the general population (3.2%). Gay men are by far the best represented minority sexuality among CEOs.
No current FTSE 100 leader is known to be LGBT. One’s sexuality is, of course, a deeply personal matter that no one should have to publicise if they don’t want to. But perhaps Lord Browne‘s controversial departure from BP in 2007, after being outed as gay by the Mail on Sunday, is still too strong a memory for any blue-chip CEO who might be LGBT to declare themselves as such.
Why CEO diversity matters for business
“Most of us want to live in an egalitarian society that has less bias and fewer hurdles for people to get to the very top of companies,” Pemberton says.
But on top of the ethical argument there’s also a strong business case for improving diversity at CEO level that’s backed by several studies, with researchers stating that it boosts corporate performance.
The onus should not be on people from under-represented groups to fight their way to the top. There‘s a clear commercial incentive for companies to encourage applications from a more diverse range of candidates. After all, who knows how many of tomorrow’s potential innovative leaders are being discouraged today from striving for the most influential positions in business?
About the data
The census category “chief executives and senior officials” includes the leaders of large businesses, hospitals and other organisations, as well as national and local government directors.