Dame Mary Marsh: Don't hold back

Women should be more confident and go for the top jobs, says our columnist

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

As one of a group of women who took on senior leadership posts in the third sector almost a decade ago, I might have overlooked the fact that we do not always pay sufficient attention to gender issues in our wider debates about equality and diversity.

Just how focused are we on the issues that challenge women and men who work or volunteer in charities and social enterprises, and on providing the right support to address them? How far do we scrutinise our own practice in our governance and the workforce, while we champion these issues for our beneficiaries?

This year I spent International Women's Day on 8 March at a conference for more than 200 women who work at the management consultancy Accenture. It was an enlightening experience. Accenture has targets for increasing the proportion of women in leadership positions in every area of its activities.

The conference, with its smart workshops, was a significant attempt to make progress with this. While I doubt that charities and social enterprises could do something on this scale (and at such a cost), there was much to learn from the content and the interaction of the participants.

Research into attitudes to ambition and promotion suggests that women are more inclined to hold back and think about the reasons why they should not put themselves forward. This can be such a waste of talent and potential. The workforce in charities and social enterprises is 71 per cent women, but there is a lower proportion in senior positions, including chairs of boards. This suggests we have some way to go. The key seems to be self-confidence - but not the bullish sort that comes without humility and the capacity to accept, challenge and learn.

Delivering my own contribution at the end of the day to the Accenture audience, who had considered the importance of presence, gravitas, personal 'brand', sustainable rapport and effective presentations, was somewhat daunting, but a great opportunity for me to learn too. A key question to emerge was: what do women leaders do to support others who aspire to follow them?

I am not sure about the wisdom of moves in the private sector to consider making change happen by setting gender quotas for their boards, even though this seems to have worked remarkably well in Norway. There are exceptional examples of impact and achievement: charity management reformer Winifred Tumin, whose memorial service was held recently, led the way. We need more to follow her example.

- Dame Mary Marsh is director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme

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