Key takeaways from the CEW's Senior Executive Census 2021

Key Takeouts

  • The report found that women remain underrepresented in executive roles across the ASX 300 as well as being underrepresented in the leadership pipeline (meaning that without action, progress will remain slow)
  • The report calls on companies to follow the example of (predominantly) larger companies that have set targets and achieved/are close to achieving gender balanced leadership including by adopting 40:40:20 gender targets


The Chief Executive Women (CEW) Senior Executive Census 2021 tracks progress towards gender balance (ie 40% women, 40% men and 20% open) in the executive leadership teams of ASX 300 companies over the past five years.

The headline finding is that despite evidence of the benefits of diverse leadership and despite increased investor focus on the issue, progress across ASX 300 companies has stagnated at what the report describes as 'unacceptably low levels'. Women remain underrepresented in senior executive roles across the ASX 300 as well as being underrepresented in the leadership pipeline.

Key Findings

Women remain underrepresented in top roles

According to the report, in 2021, women held only 6% of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) roles in the ASX300, 19% of CFO roles and 26% of positions in executive leadership teams (ie all roles that report directly to the CEO). CEO points out that there has been no progress in the percentage of women in line and CEO roles over the five years to 2021.

Unlikely that this will change in the near term

In 2021, 78% of the 23 new CEO appointments were made from line roles (ie roles that drive key commercial outcomes and usually have profit and loss responsibility). Importantly, the report found that women remain underrepresented in these CEO 'feeder' roles:

  • CEW found that 62% of ASX300 companies have zero women in line roles in their executive leadership teams
  • Women held only 14% of line roles with profit and loss responsibilities (the most common pathway for future CEOs
  • Only one of 23 new CEO appointments was a woman.

The proportion of women in CFO roles (another recognised CEO pathway) was found to be only slightly stronger with women now holding 19% of ASX 300 CFO roles.

Larger companies are leading the way on gender diversity in leadership

The report found that generally, the higher the ASX ranking, the stronger the representation of women in executive leadership teams. For example, the report found that:

  • the proportion of women in executive roles increases from 26% in ASX 300 companies, to 27% in ASX 200 companies to 29% in ASX 100 companies.
  • the percentage of line roles held by women is again highest (17%) in ASX 100 companies, dropping to 14% in ASX 300 companies.

The case for the adoption of 40:40:20 targets

CEW argues that the lack of progress identified in the report serves to 'underscore both the risk of no significant improvements in coming years and a problem for the Australian economy and society'. The report states,

'With recovery from the pandemic upper-most in our minds, utilising all the talent pool available within Australia makes economic and social sense. Indeed, it is the single most effective thing we can do. Now is the time for action. It is time for gender balance targets for executive leadership teams.

Targets work

The report found that the proportion of companies that have set 40:40:20 (or more ambitious targets) is significantly higher in the ASX100 (at 50%) compared with the ASX300 (29%) and that female representation is higher at the companies that have these targets in place. For example:

  • 54% of ASX100 companies have already met, or are 'on the cusp', of achieving gender balance in their Executive Leadership Teams (ELTs)
  • 34% of ASX300 companies with 40:40 or better targets have achieved gender balance in their executive leadership teams compared with 16% of companies who have set targets below 40:40:20 and 13% of ASX300 companies without any target.

Based on the findings in the report, the CEW considers gender targets to be one of the most effective mechanisms to drive progress towards achievement of gender balance in executive leadership teams, including in line roles, and calls on companies to implement 40:40:20 targets on this basis.

[Source: CEW Senior Executive Census 2021]