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One third of new board members at europe's largest companies in 2012 are women

  • September 2012

Surge in women on boards not matched in executive pipeline

Egon Zehnder European Board Diversity Analysis 2012 shows sharp upturn since 2004

Accelerating trend of women joining European boards since 2004:

Doubling of women’s share of all board seats, from 8% to 16% in eight years

Rise of 41% in European companies with women on the board, from 61% to 86%

If this trend continues, women will account for 25% of all European board roles by 2017

Executive and Chair roles still overwhelmingly male: negligible progress for women

Boards becoming more international: non-national board members rise from 23% to 32% between 2010 and 2012

Düsseldorf, 6 September 2012. Women are joining the boards of Europe’s largest companies in greater numbers than ever before – accounting for a third of all new board appointments in 2012 – raising for the first time the prospect of women filling a quarter of top European board roles within five years, according to Egon Zehnder, the largest privately-owned global executive search firm.

Accelerating trend in overall representation of women on European boards

The Egon Zehnder European Board Diversity Analysis 2012 shows an accelerating trend in the participation of women. The share of all board seats held by women has risen by 28% in the past two years to 15.6% (from 12.2% in 2010). This is equivalent to almost half of the total progress from the baseline set in Egon Zehnder’s first analysis in 2004, when only 8.0% of board seats were held by women.

The rapid increase in numbers of European companies with at least one woman on the board is equally impressive, rising to 86% by 2012: a 9% increase since 2010 (79%); and a 41% increase since 2004 when only 61% of all boards included a woman. If this trend continues at the current rate, women will be represented on the boards of all of Europe’s largest companies within the next two to four years and account for 25% of all board roles within the next five years.

The overall figures mask significant regional disparity. In five Scandinavian countries there is at least one female director on every board, and the UK is close with 95% of leading companies now having at least one woman. However Greece, Italy and the Netherlands still lag behind, with almost a third of boards still wholly male, rising to half in Portugal and Luxembourg.

The change is clearly based on many more women joining boards every year. Absolute numbers of women joining boards of the companies surveyed rose by 70% compared to two years ago. Total numbers of men hired stayed at roughly the same level.

“Our statistics suggest we could be at a tipping point, with women set to fill one in four of all board roles across Europe within five years,” said Damien O’Brien, Chief Executive and Chair of Egon Zehnder. “To sustain future growth, the key challenge for organizations will be to ensure more women rising through the executive ranks. This will not only prepare them for future board positions but will also serve as a role model and inspire the next generation of female leaders.”

No progress in executive and Chair roles for women

The Egon Zehnder analysis flags concern that women are particularly under-represented in executive roles, which are often a stepping stone to non-executive board positions. Only one in twenty executive board positions (as opposed to one in six of all board positions) are today held by a woman – and there has been no progress since 2010.

Equally concerning is that despite women’s increasing representation on boards as a whole, the top board leadership roles remain out of reach. Just seven of 415 Chair roles across the companies surveyed were held by a woman, again with no progress since 2010. A key reason for the scarcity of women Chairs is that few women have sufficiently long and broad board experience. The analysis shows that women board members are on average almost five years younger than their male counterparts.

Rise in non-national board members

Diversity, however, is about more than just gender. The analysis shows that boards are simultaneously becoming more international, with a steep increase in non-national board members since 2010. In 2012 31.5% of Europe’s top companies’ board members were non-nationals, against 27.8% in 2010. International appointments in the largest companies in Europe accounted for 33% of all appointments in the past 12 months (compared with 37% of women appointments).

“Across Europe most companies now seem to have accepted the case for diversity,” said Laurence Monnery, Co-Head of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Council at Egon Zehnder. “With rising diversity on boards and for firms to make the best out of it, leadership styles must become more inclusive and there needs to be diversity among leaders themselves.”

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Egon Zehnder, Corporate Communications at +49 (0)211 55 02 85-0 or


Egon Zehnder has been tracking diversity on boards since 2004. In 2012, Egon Zehnder analyzed the boards of 353 of the largest companies across 17 countries in Europe to see how many women are engaged in board work, the nature of their engagement – executive roles vs. non-executive roles, and leadership roles on the board or within committees – and to assess whether female participation on boards has increased or decreased over time. The research also looked at wider definitions of diversity such as non-national board members. To be included in this analysis, companies needed market capitalization in excess of EUR 4 billion. Where the number of companies from a single country meeting this criterion was less than six, additional companies (next largest) were added to bring the sample from each country to six companies in order to prevent volatility of summary data. All data was supplied by BoardEx.

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