Female directors now make up 15.6 per cent of boards, up from just eight per cent in 2004, and eighty-six per cent of the biggest European companies now have at least one woman on their board.
The number has risen by seven percentage points since 2010, and is up 25 percentage points since 2004, when just 61 per cent of boards included both genders.
And according to the research, by headhunter Egon Zehnder, the trend is only accelerating – if appointments continue at their current rate women could make up a quarter of all boards in the next five years.
But progress has not been uniform across the continent. Every one of the largest companies across five Scandinavian countries has a woman on their board. The UK is close behind: only five per cent of firms surveyed– all with a market capitalisation of over €4bn – have a wholly male board.
On the other hand, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands are well behind – in each country nearly a third of the biggest businesses have boards including no women. In Portugal and Luxembourg this proportion rises to around half.
“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 Damian O’Brien, chief executive of Egon Zehnder.
“To sustain future growth, the key challenge...will be to ensure more women [are] rising through the executive ranks.
Since 2004, when the research started, women have risen to the top of several key British companies.
Angela Ahrendts joined the Burberry board in 2006 and became chief executive later that year, while Deirdre Mahlan was made finance chief of drinks firm Diageo in 2010.
Alison Carnwath – who recently left the board of Barclays Bank – still holds non-executive directorships at Man Group and Zurich, and was appointed chair of Land Securities in 2008. And just last month Estelle Brachlianoff relocated from Paris to London to become chief executive of the UK’s biggest waste management firm, Veolia.
Despite these high-profile hires, the survey shows women are still under-represented in executive roles.
Just one in 20 executive board positions across Europe are held by women, and this figure has stagnated since 2010. pipeline of strong female candidates is established. “A key reason for the scarcity of women chairs is that few women have sufficiently long and broad board experience,” said O’Brien.
On Tuesday, the EU announced plans to impose gender quotas for boards after deeming voluntary progress too slow. The proposals will require national governments to impose fines if more than 60 per cent of a firm’s non-exec directors are of the same gender by 2020.