For years, women have fought their way to the top. Those who’ve succeeded have become trailblazers in their own right.

Take private equity giant Ardian’s CEO Dominique Senequier, who was among the first women to be admitted into her university, École Polytechnique. Allison Kirkby of telecoms company BT became the first female CEO in the company’s 178-year history last month.

When investigating Europe’s most powerful and influential women for International Women’s Day, we found a common thread–the wealth of experience they bring.

We discovered around 35% of Fortune 500 Europe’s female CEOs and half of the European women on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list are aged 55 and over. From that group we found accomplished experts across industries—from commodities to financial services and pharmaceuticals—who’ve spent several decades in the corporate world now. 

To recognize their sizable achievements this International Women’s Day, Fortune curated a handpicked selection of female leaders at the helm of European companies, aged 55 and above. We drew upon our flagship lists—Fortune 500 Europe and Most Powerful Women—while also keeping an eye out for other up-and-coming leaders.

This inaugural list will be the first of many, highlighting the greatest female business leaders in continental Europe and, arguably, the world. While the list is not exhaustive, it sheds light on how female leaders are shaking up today’s world. 

However you look at it, there’s an unacceptably low number of female CEOs in Europe. When Fortune launched its debut list of Europe’s top 500 companies based on revenue last year, we found only 7% were run by women. That’s a tiny fraction, and reveals how much more work we have ahead of us.

There’s an obvious business case for doing so—women-led companies have shown higher profit margins and are linked to greater climate-related investments, consultancy The Pipeline found in a study of FTSE 350 companies. 

For all those on the path to become future leaders, Netherlands-based Achmea’s executive board chair, Bianca Tetteroo, shared the following words of wisdom: “Dare to jump into the deep end. What’s the worst thing if it doesn’t work out?”.

Explore 5 spotlighted executives along with two up-and-coming leaders we have our eyes on, and the full list below.

Editor’s Note: The list below combines data from both the Fortune Europe 500 and the Most Powerful Women lists, as captured in 2023. Revenue and other data were captured at the time of the list creation and may not reflect the latest data available.

The Callouts

Our team curated a hand-picked group of European female CEOs who’ve blazed the trail for the next generation of leaders. Meet them below:

Halvor Molland/Hydro

Hilde Merete Aasheim, CEO of Norsk Hydro

Aasheim is a true jack of all trades. She’s led the Norwegian aluminum and energy giant Norsk Hydro since 2019, steering it through the highs and lows of the pandemic-time demand and price volatility. Starting off as an accountant, she climbed up the ranks over 35 years by working in a variety of functions from human resources to senior management. Aasheim, who is now the CEO and president of Hydro, has been at the company for close to 20 years

“The best thing you can do is to take the chance when you have it, say yes rather than thinking about all the challenges, and rather look at it as an opportunity,” Aasheim said in an interview with S&P Global last year.     

Hydro was ranked #173 in the Fortune 500 Europe list.

Courtesy of Merck KgA

Belén Garijo, CEO of Merck KGaA

Garijo’s journey began as a physician in Spain. Eventually, that landed her in a boardroom. She is now among the few female CEOs in the mammoth-sized chemicals and life sciences sector, and is the first one at 355-year-old Merck. She also sits on the board of French beauty giant L’Oréal. 

Garijo has been honored for her achievements in furthering gender diversity. Over a third of Merck’s top leaders are women. 

“Still today, many women in science will encounter people who resist any change to the status quo. And that’s when you need to be surrounded by people who believe in you—sometimes more than you believe in yourself,” Garijo said in a LinkedIn post last month. 

Merck was ranked #165 the Fortune 500 Europe list and Garijo was ranked #30 on the Most Powerful Women list. 

Joel Sagat—AFP/Getty Images

Dominique Senequier, CEO of Ardian

To lead one of Europe’s largest private equity firms is no small feat. 

Senequier rose to fame when she founded insurance firm AXA’s private equity arm in 1996. That eventually morphed into Ardian in 2013, and is now a sprawling 1,050-people operation.

But Senequier’s trail-blazing journey began well before that, when she was one of seven to be admitted to Ecole Polytechnique’s first intake for women in 1972.  

Ardian, under the French private equity veteran, has committed itself to bringing more women into this niche of finance. The firm’s ratio of new hires who were female was 42% last year.  

Senequier was ranked #66 in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list in 2023.

Courtesy of Vodafone

Margherita Della Valle, CEO of Vodafone

Della Valle has spent the better part of her life—over 30 years—at British telecoms behemoth Vodafone. In that time, she has worked in diverse roles from marketing to finance. 

She was the group’s CFO for several years before becoming CEO in 2023. 

The Italian-born economics graduate is among the nine FTSE 100 companies that are led by women.

Since taking over the helm of Vodafone, she has undertaken a massive restructuring effort, cutting down the number of markets it operates in, and pull back up its slumping share prices. 

“Being a woman in business today is a bit of a superpower because you bring a different voice,” she told This is Money. “It is very difficult to get around the table. But once you are there, your voice can really be heard because you have a different perspective.”

Della Valle was ranked #36 in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list in 2023. 

Hollie Adams—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Ana Botín, Executive Chairman of Santander

Banking runs in Botín’s blood. 

She took over from her father Emilio as the executive chair of Banco Santander, one of Europe’s biggest banks, in 2014. Botín is the fourth-generation in the family to lead the company.

Botín is, in every sense, a banking expert as she spent her entire career working in the industry since starting at JPMorgan in New York in 1980

She has scaled the bank to new heights, establishing it as an multinational juggernaut while expanding women’s presence at the board and senior leadership levels. Botín also serves on the board of The Coca-Cola Company. 

In Botín’s view, rotating women within different banking roles can be a useful way to uplift them and provide them opportunities to climb the corporate ladder faster, she told CNBC last year.  

Botín was ranked #19 in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list in 2023.

Ones to watch

Here are two leaders who we believe are tipped for future success:

Barbara Martin Coppola, CEO of Decathlon

Martin Coppola is a true global citizen—she’s lived and worked in nine countries. Her corporate pedigree includes Google and Ikea, before she took over the top-job at French sports retailer Decathlon in 2022. She is the family-owned company’s first female CEO and first chief hired externally. 

She is an expert at business development and digital expansion—two elements she hopes will propel Decathlon to new heights. The retailer might be relatively young (at 47 years) compared to the other companies highlighted above, but Decathlon is already present in 70 countries and has established itself as one of the biggest sporting companies globally. 

In Martin Coppola’s first year as CEO, Decathlon’s sales grew 12% annually—but that’s not all, the number of women in senior leadership roles doubled

The Decathlon CEO was ranked #61 in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s List in 2023.

Debra Crew, CEO of Diageo

Crew had big shoes to fill when she took over from Ivan Menezes, who was among the FTSE 100’s longest-serving CEOs. In becoming Diageo’s chief, Crew, 53, joined the small but mighty group of women leading FTSE 100 companies.  

Crew is a veteran in the food-and-beverage space, having worked at Pepsi, Nestlé and others prior to joining the Guinness-maker. She has a tall task as the world’s largest spirits maker faces a cocktail of problems from an inventory glut to a slump in demand

Before Crew entered the corporate world, she served as a U.S. military officer.

Diageo ranked #166 in the Fortune 500 Europe list

View our full list of female European CEOs, in no particular order, below. 

Ana Botín

Company: Santander
Country: Spain
Director and Executive Chairman tenure (years): 20+

Margherita Della Valle

Company: Vodafone Group
Country: Italy
CEO tenure (years): 1+

Dominique Senequier

Company: Ardian
Country: France
Founder and President tenure (years): 20+

Allison Kirkby

Company: BT
Country: U.K.
CEO tenure (years): Two months. (Previously President and CEO of Telia Company).

Isabelle Ferrand

Company: Crédit Mutuel Group
Country: France
CEO tenure (years): 1+

Christel Bories

Company: Eramet
Country: France
Chairman and CEO tenure (years): 6+

Annie J. Krist

Company: GasTerra
Country: Netherlands
CEO tenure (years): 6+

Nancy McKinstry

Company: Wolters Kluwer
Country: US (Netherlands-based)
Chairman and CEO tenure (years): 20+

Hilde Merete Aasheim

Company: Norsk Hydro
Country: Norway
President and CEO tenure (years): 4+

Nina Jönsson

Company: ICA Gruppen
Country: Sweden
CEO tenure (years): 1+

Michelle M. MacKay

Company: Cushman & Wakefield
Country: US
CEO tenure (years): Eight months.

Belén Garijo

Company: Merck Group
Country: Spain
Chair of Executive Board and CEO tenure (years): 2+

Sophie Bellon

Company: Sodexo
Country: France
Chairwoman and CEO tenure (years): 2+

Bianca E.M. Tetteroo

Company: Achmea
Country: Netherlands
Chair of the Executive Board tenure (years): 2+

Credits: This year’s list was prepared under the direction of Fortune Europe’s List Director, Grethe Schepers.


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