The Big Hire: Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society

The new chief executive will join the women's equality charity in time for its 150th anniversary. She talks to Annette Rawstrone

Sam Smethers
Sam Smethers

When Sam Smethers saw that the Fawcett Society was recruiting a new chief executive, she thought "that's my job" and went for it.

She is no stranger to the work and concerns of this gender equality and women's rights charity – she was one of its trustees for three years until 2010, and has worked for both the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. She says the charity's cause is close to her heart and she speaks passionately about it.

Currently chief executive of Grandparents Plus, which champions the role of grandparents in caring within the family, Smethers will join the Fawcett Society in August, when it will be planning for its 150th anniversary in 2016. The charity was founded by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who worked alongside the Suffragettes to campaign for votes for women and argued that achieving women's rights was integral to achieving social justice.

Smethers – a mother of four children, aged from three to 24 – believes there is still a huge agenda to tackle, including the lack of women leaders in the public and private sectors, the gender pay gap and the compromises women often have to make in their careers when they have children. "The challenge will be to take a long-standing agenda, redefine and refresh it, then take it to a new audience," she says. "I believe that feminism is more alive now than it was 20 years ago. We need to redefine feminism as a word and not be scared of it. Rather than an ideology, it's more of an inclusive concept about fairness and making a life that is better for all of us."

She is also tasked with rebuilding the organisation, attracting more funding after what she calls a bumpy period when its income fell from £585,000 in 2010 to £405,000 in 2014, and increasing its impact, which she says is already big for a team of 10.

She describes her leadership style as positive, motivating people to buy into what she wants to achieve. Her description of her mission is also positive. She says: "Rather than saying 'isn't this terrible?', I want to point out how things can be better and how equality can lead to more effective businesses and a stronger economy."

Smethers anticipates that the fallout from the general election will be significant and that it's yet to be seen how the new agenda will affect women. But she adds: "A third of the Cabinet are women, which is a sign of progress. We would not have seen that in a Conservative government 20 years ago."

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