rachel clodagh cheryl

Left to right: Rachel Izzard, Clodagh Moriarty and Cheryl Potter

To coincide with International Women’s Day, PwC has released its figures on the gender pay gap. And they make for pretty depressing reading. The nation’s average pay gap widened by 2.4 percentage points to 14.4% in 2021, it found.

Essentially, companies have gone backwards, rather than forwards. According to PwC, it will now likely take more than 50 years for the UK to reach gender pay parity.

But amid all this doom and gloom, there is a ray of light. That comes from the progress made on supermarket boards. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen some high-level female appointments. At M&S, the appointment of private equity heavyweight Cheryl Potter has created a female-dominated board for the first time. It’s an achievement shared by only 20 other companies in the FTSE 250.

Today, the Co-op – which already has a female CEO in the shape of Shirine Khoury-Haq – named Rachel Izzard as its chief financial officer.

And over at Sainsbury’s, there are three changes worthy of note. It also has a new female CFO: Bláthnaid Bergin. She takes over this week from outgoing Kevin O’Byrne, who is retiring after six years in the role. It has also today announced the appointment of Prerana Issar, formerly of NHS England, as its first chief people officer. She will take up the mantle in June. Finally, the retailer has promoted retail and digital chief Clodagh Moriarty. This month, she assumes the new title of chief retail and technology officer – taking over new technology responsibilities following the retirement of chief information officer Phil Jordan.

These appointments point to the growing progress in gender equality across supermarket boards. Our power list of the top women in supermarkets, published today, points to just how far the sector has come on this front. The top 10 women – spanning marketing, finance, HR, commercial, retail, technology as well as CEO roles – are all shining examples of female leadership. But they are also indicative of a wider trend.

This month’s FTSE Women Leaders Review found the proportion of women on FTSE 350 boards had topped 40% for the first time in 2022 – up from just 23% in 2017. And at many of the supermarkets, this figure is even higher.

The report found Tesco boards are 41.7% female, while 62.5% of board roles are held by women at John Lewis. The appointment of Bláthnaid Bergin as CFO means the Sainsbury’s operating board now has gender parity. And when Issar joins it will again be tipped in favour of women. 

This momentum shows no sign of stopping. Women’s network Grocery Girls says “leadership was voted the biggest area of focus” among its members for 2023.

As PwC’s figures show, it is by no means ‘job done’. There is clearly still work to do to promote equality at the highest levels. But it’s encouraging to see supermarkets taking the lead on this front – and encouraging to see so many inspiring role models at the top for future female leaders.