Analysis: Stark gender gap at the top of finance departments

Charities do no better than FTSE companies, despite a more female-friendly culture. Sam Burne James reports

Gender gap: endemic to finance?
Gender gap: endemic to finance?

In September, Third Sector revealed a lack of diversity at the helm of the UK's 50 biggest charities that raise funds from the public. Among the headline figures was that only 15 of the 50 were led by women.

New research on the same 50 charities has found an even bigger gender gap at the top of finance departments: only nine have female directors. This is despite a survey of global businesses in 2012, by the accountancy firm Grant Thornton, that found finance was second only to HR as the department most likely to have a female leader.

"This seems to be in line with FTSE 100 companies, so it's not that surprising," says Diane Bassett, corporate services director at the environmental charity the South West Lakes Trust. The issue was recently raised by a member survey of the Charity Finance Group, of which Bassett is deputy chair. "In 2015/16, CFG will look at where there are barriers to female career progression and how we can support development," she says.

Mark Salway, who is leaving his post as FD of Care International UK in November, says that achieving equality and enabling female career progression internally go hand in hand with the NGO's mission. "Addressing gender inequality is an effective strategy for reducing poverty and tackling social injustice," says Salway, also a visiting lecturer at the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness. "We want to reflect this in how we operate."

Although half of Care's directors are women, this compares with 62 per cent of managers. As part of Care's drive to become what Salway calls "a more gender-sensitive organisation", he says it has worked through its HR policies and their implications, and all staff have received gender training that looks at power dynamics between the sexes.

Charities generally have a more female-friendly culture than corporates, according to Kate McLeod, chief financial officer at the learning disability charity Mencap and one of the nine female FDs in the top 50 charities. "I worked at a large investment bank, and I can say that I've never seen in the charity sector the same cultural barriers to senior female employment I found in the corporate world," she says.

McLeod says a number of historical and cultural factors are behind the male dominance of finance, such as the fact that girls are less likely to be encouraged to pursue mathematics at school. "It might be that the low representation of women in FD roles is endemic to the finance world, rather than specific to the charity sector," she says.

Across all sectors, one factor often considered likely to result in fewer women taking top jobs is that women are culturally more likely to take career breaks or switch to part-time working to look after children. Kate Sayer, a partner at the accountancy firm Sayer Vincent, agrees that being FD of a large charity is not a part-time role, but does not think this is relevant to the gender debate. She says: "I think that's looking at it in an old-fashioned way - why should it be that men wouldn't want to work part-time?

"The intake into chartered accountancy firms has been 50:50 for some time now, so it is surprising that we don't have more balance among charity FDs."

But Sayer is not overly concerned by the nine-out-of-50 figure. She thinks a broader survey would reveal more women at the helm of finance teams; and she wonders if this survey matters. "I don't think people pay that much attention to what the top 50 charities do - they're not representative of the sector as a whole," she says.

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