Female CEOs leading the way in 2024

Despite calls for diversity, female CEOs in the UK remain underrepresented. However, there are still some making remarkable strides in their industries.

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Being a CEO is no walk in the park, but for women, it’s a hike through the Wild West.

Pressure, expectations and demand are all part of the CEO package, but women can feel the burden more intensely than their male counterparts.

And it’s not in their minds. Not only does a gender pay gap exist but it’s particularly prominent in senior and director roles. 

What’s more, the UK has fallen behind in female representation. Compared to other countries, such as Iceland and Latvia, the UK is still lacking in the number of C-suite level females. While gender diversity is important for representation, it can also provide unique insights into the decision-making process and improve organisational performance. 

So what is the current state of play for women at the top? We’ll explore some key stats, challenges and emerging trends as well as spotlight five British women that every business leader – big or small – can learn from.

Current trends in female leadership

In 2017, new regulations were introduced to the Equality Act 2010, in which large companies were required to report data on gender pay gaps.

Gender pay gap statistics revealed that male workers earned 9.1% more than their female colleagues in 2023, while 78.4% of firms that reported this data paid men more than women. 

Public awareness around the issue has also grown, with big companies like EasyJet, Barclays Bank and EDF Energy being named and shamed for failing to amend their gender pay and bonus gap.

CEO salaries aren’t safe either, with the difference in earnings between male and female CEOs at 5.25% last year. Even female founders raised around 7.7x less than their male counterparts during the early stage of capital.

Global CEO turnover spiked in the first quarter of 2024, marking the highest first-quarter CEO appointments recorded in the last five years.

Female CEOs are more than twice as likely to leave their roles within 2 years. Data from the Russell Reynolds Global CEO Turnover Index reported that 24.1% of women CEOs left their role within 24 months of a five-year period, compared to 10.2% of men.

Despite a record high of 42% of women in board positions, there are only 10 FTSE100 led by women CEOs, a noticeable decline compared to the previous two years. 

However, female leaders are making strides in certain industries; notably technology, finance and healthcare. Moreover, a report by Donovan Training Associates predicts that there will be increased awareness of the benefits of gender diversity in leadership roles, as well as a change in cultural norms and more supportive policies.

Challenges faced by female CEOs

The significant gender pay gap is one thing, but there are also other factors causing female CEOs to throw in the towel. 

Gender biases, lack of opportunity and fewer connections can also cause issues for women in leadership roles. A prime example is the “motherhood penalty”, in which women with childcare commitments are assumed not to be dedicated to their careers compared to their male peers.

In terms of progression, a study by HiBob revealed that only 16% of women in the UK received promotions compared to 23% of men in 2023. It also found that women faced more challenges than men to achieve a decent work-life balance, such as struggling to receive specific benefits like extended paid maternity leave.

But even when a woman is promoted, some are only progressed during a time of crisis when the chance of failure is more likely. This is known as a “glass cliff”, and has played a major part in female CEOs resigning from their positions in the last two years.

Networking also comes into play, as it’s considered a “double-edged sword” for a woman’s career progression. Some women want to get noticed by taking on leadership roles, but they are more likely to be penalised than their male colleagues. Asserting themselves through proactive action puts them at risk of being labelled as “too aggressive” or “too ambitious”, which can lead to dissatisfaction if they don’t get the recognition or career advancement they strive for.

Finally, further data from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company also cite challenges such as microaggressions and promotion gaps to be the cause of senior-level women quitting their positions.

5 Female CEOs to watch

Despite the challenges, there are multiple women whose accomplishments, initiatives and leadership styles are changing the business landscape. Here are 5 female CEOs to watch. 

1. Julie Chen, The Cheeky Panda

The Cheeky Panda was first thought up by Julie Chen in her spare bedroom in 2016. Eight years on, and it’s now a brand worth £85 million and a certified B Corp selling over 16 bamboo-based products in 25 countries worldwide.

Chen supports the “soft approach” to running a business, such as recruiting from diverse backgrounds, offering extra compassionate leave and encouraging employees to express their thoughts and opinions.

Lesson: There’s nothing wrong with being “soft”

Business doesn’t have to be cold and corporate. While business performance and achieving results are important, so is the well-being of employees. Fostering a good work culture will help increase productivity, boost morale and reduce turnover.

2. Shirine Khoury-Haq, The Co-operative Group

Shirine Khoury-Haq was hired as The Co-op’s first female CEO in 2022.

Khoury-Haq started working in Pizza Hut and selling vacuums to help pay the bills. Since relocating to the UK, she has worked as chief operating officer (COO) at Catlin Group and COO at Lloyd’s of London, before joining the Co-op Group in 2019.

Khoury-Haq stated that she had “big plans” for the company, including improving its appeal to a younger audience with pop-up stalls at festivals and sponsorship of the new Co-op Live arena.

Lesson: You can start from anywhere

Khoury-Haq’s experience shows that no matter your socio-economic background, race, religion or gender, “humble” beginnings don’t need to be a barrier to being a successful leader. 

3. Milena Mondini de Focatiis, Admiral Group

Milena Mondini de Focatiis was appointed as CEO of Admiral Group in 2020, becoming the company’s first female CEO.

Mondini de Focatiis has worked for Admiral since 2007, and just a year after she was appointed CEO, the company reported a 76% increase in operating profits from £274.4 million to £482.2 million. Mondini de Focatiis stated that a good strategy and execution played a big part in this success.

Lesson: Flexibility is a female superpower

Admiral’s success didn’t happen overnight. It takes strategic vision and relentless execution to get there, such as defining long-term goals and developing a detailed action plan. 

For Milena Mondini de Focatiis, this involved adapting Admiral’s business goals during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, adjusting pricing ahead of the UK market to reflect the changing pandemic-related trends and providing more digital and self-service options to customers.

Now, the company has big ambitions for Admiral to become a leader in the electric vehicle industry, having seen significant growth in 2023.

4. Amanda Blanc, Aviva

Amanda Blanc is truly a force to be reckoned with, having influenced some of the biggest corporate changes against sexism and misconduct in Britain. 

Blanc’s career began when she worked as a graduate at Commercial Union. Since then, she has worked her way up the career ladder, taking on senior executive roles at AXA, Zurich Insurance Group and EMEA, before landing the CEO role at Aviva. 

Determined to improve gender equality, Blanc stated that Aviva itself had fired male employees for inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues and that senior management had a “responsibility to call out” any kind of misconduct.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to call out bad behaviour

No one should be made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable in their workplace. Providing a safe environment is essential for the safety and well-being of employees, and any misconduct should always be pursued accordingly.

Amanda Blanc isn’t just hailed for her successful career. Rather, how she condemns misconduct in her own workplace and ensures that the careers of whistleblowers don’t suffer as a result. 

5. Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK plc)

Emma Walmsley became the first woman to lead a major pharmaceutical company after being appointed CEO of GSK in 2017.

In 2021, investment management firm Elliott Management called for Walmsley to reapply for her job, but the company rejected these demands. Two years later, her direction resulted in GSK’s global revenue increasing by 5%, while its share rose by 11% in the same year. Walmsley also stated during a podcast interview that 50% of management in the company are women, as well as 42% of their VPs and above.

Lesson: Stand your ground

Walmsley cited being confident in your convictions, having the ability to listen and having thick skin as important elements of being a CEO.

Thick skin was certainly needed when Elliott called for new board directors, but thanks to Walmsley’s commitment to innovation and resilience, achieving impressive financial growth later down the line reinforced confidence in her vision.

How to support women in leadership?

The Equality Act 2010 and the reporting of gender pay gaps are both part of the UK’s policy to support gender diversity. The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 enables better access to flexible work, helping to close the gender pay gap and boost gender equality.

However, the lack of gender diversity in leadership roles doesn’t just affect large businesses or corporate entities; it’s prevalent in startups and SMEs too. To encourage and support gender equity, businesses should be looking at strategies and initiatives that promote female career progression such as specialised leadership training programmes and mentorship, for example through tools such as PushFar, Qooper and MentorcliQ

Networking groups are beneficial but can be challenging for women to speak freely. That’s why female-only networking groups offer a space to discuss gender and equality issues without being judged. They’re also a great way for companies to improve the working environment and boost employee confidence.


It’s clear that female CEOs in 2024 are still struggling to overcome certain barriers. The gender pay gap, lack of progression and age-old stereotypes all create significant obstacles that hinder their success. Turnover of female CEOs is also high, causing even greater concern for gender equality in senior positions.

But even with all of this against them, these exceptional female CEOs have defied the odds and achieved remarkable success through their leadership and resilience.

Businesses need to take action to support female leadership – implementing policies that promote diversity, providing mentorship and offering more developmental opportunities.

As the successful women CEOs we’ve showcased demonstrate, their contribution to the business landscape is more than equal to any man’s. 

Written by:
With over 3 years expertise in Fintech, Emily has first hand experience of both startup culture and creating a diverse range of creative and technical content. As Startups Writer, her news articles and topical pieces cover the small business landscape and keep our SME audience up to date on everything they need to know.

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