Women on boards: a man's view

Women on boards: a man's view

Women on boards: a man's view2

Governance | Ian Allsop | 28 Apr 2011

Ian Allsop offers a bloke’s view of the gender inequality on charity boards.

The cover story of this month’s Charity Finance reveals some fascinating statistics around female representation on the boards of the top 100 charities compared to the FTSE100 companies. So I started thinking about how I could exploit any potential female weakness in voluntary sector governance for the sake of a column. Typical man eh? Why, I could even pay a woman a pittance to write it for me. Although I would just like to reassure any female readers worried that I will continue with a string of tongue-in-cheek patronising paragraphs not to worry their pretty little heads.

There have been countless studies on gender equality over the years, most of which have probably been undertaken by men, or more likely, by women on their behalf and comparatively unrewarded for their efforts. And while the results from Charity Finance’s (female-penned) study show that civil society is better than the private sector, they also reveal room for improvement.

Although not always recognised as the eloquent voice of burgeoning feminism, the sex-obsessed Godfather of Soul, James Brown’s canny observation in the 1960s that “this is a man’s world” still stands true today despite undoubted progress in the influence of women. However, Brown’s credentials as shrewd sociogender commentator were admittedly undermined by other treatises set to a funky beat such as “Papa’s got a brand new bag”. If the growing financial power of females in the last 40 years is illustrated by anything it is their propensity to buy brand new bags.

It can be quite hard for anyone to get their head round the statistics but the following data hopefully illustrates just how significant women are globally.

They now form around half of the world’s population. This is quite staggering when you consider that in 1300 it was only 17 per cent.

But sexism, which as a theory was invented by a man, still abounds. Only last month universities minister David Willetts got into hot water for comments blaming feminism on hindering the career progression of males.

And the Sky Sports Richard Keys/Andy Gray saga revealed the shocking truth that football is actually inherently sexist and it is only forward-thinking organisations like Sky (owned by the publisher of a newspaper that glorifies page 3 girls) that can change attitudes by taking a moral stand.

I myself have battled against ingrained sexist attitudes in society by taking the ‘traditional’ mother’s role of child-raising while my wife works full-time. Sure, I have had awkward glances in the playground and am excluded by some of the chattering cliques at the school gate. But the key is that it was a choice we were luckily able to make because of my wife’s healthy job situation, not something that was imposed on us by circumstance. (Incidentally, I have asked my wife to read this to check it reads OK. She wasn’t happy with some of the comments but she’s a bit touchy so what can you do?)

The charity sector features plenty of well-respected high-profile females yet a recent Funding the Future conference led to complaints about the low number of lady speakers, which offers a worrying vision of the sort of future we may be funding.

So how can females, both in wider society and the charity world, smash through the glass ceiling instead of being politely asked to keep it nicely polished from below?

The goal, it is suggested, is 50/50 representation on boards. But is that realistic? The problem with targets like this is that they can lead to positive discrimination. This is now recognised as a negative idea so would need some sort of favouritism implemented to make it work as a concept above other methods.

One thing that charities have had to do to attract good staff when they cannot compete on salaries is to encourage flexible working. So the sector can to some degree take steps to develop its own female talent, which would in turn feed longer-term into more quality candidates for trustee positions. However, charities do still operate in the wider society where the pool of female high-fliers generally is limited so the figures will always reflect in part that inequality.

One of the most compelling arguments for diversity is that it leads to more effective boards. And that should be the driving force behind increased female representation. Having a 50/50 split as an end in itself is not the right approach. Diversity in all areas, not just gender, because of the improved performance it engenders should be the aspiration. But then, I am only a man, so what do I know? 


Susan Daniels
Executive Director
2 May 2011

Having written on this subject since the mid 1990s it is frustrating that research is still largely based on 'counts', new insights are limited and the overall pace of change is glacial despite the equalities act being well over 35 years old! Unfortunately, the evidence shows that quotas work for a limited time period, and that positive discrimination programmes (no matter how well disguised they may be) tend to fail. The real issue is, I believe, deeply ingrained in the bureaucratic systems within which we operate. This means that we all have a responsibility in making change happen. We must question and review recruitment systems and processes and be aware of our prejudices. Speaking up at Board meetings, participating on nominations committees, ensuring appropriate policies and processes are followed are essential ways all Trustees can be proactive.

Rowena Lewis
2010 Clore Social Fellow
Clore Social Leadership Programme
28 Apr 2011

Aren't we all just a bit bored of treading on already well stomped ground in this debate and hiding behind the presumption that female talent needs to be developed to be fit for purpose?

Bring on quotas! All concerns around positive discrimination are secondary in a society where discrimination runs deep in our DNA. Quotas don't stand for positive discrimination they stand for positive action. Quotas offer an opportunity to introduce for the very first time a level playing field for men and women. Then we'll stop debating and actually see women, and a diversity of women at that, in action.

You must be just a little bit tempted to see what 50/50 would look like in practice...


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Ian Allsop

Ian Allsop is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in not-for-profit management and financial issues.

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