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FTSE boards reject female voluntary sector leaders, study finds

Dismissal of 'toxic' sector experience is based on sexism and lack of understanding, says Lynne Berry, senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School

Lynne Berry
Lynne Berry

The chairs of top private companies view the CVs of successful women leaders in the voluntary sector as "toxic", according to research by Cass Business School.  

Lynne Berry, a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School and deputy chair of the Canal and River Trust, this morning presented the initial findings of a two-year programme that involves seven senior female chief executives from the voluntary sector attempting to join the boards of major companies as non-executive directors.

Six months into the scheme, called The Outstanding Women Leaders and Private Sector Boards programme, the response from chairs of FTSE 100 and 250 companies has been "mostly negative", said Berry, who is a participant as well as carrying out the research for Cass.

Only one of the women has got to the first stage of a formal interview for a FTSE 100 board, but has heard nothing further, she said.

"There are still many who have described working in the voluntary sector as being toxic," said Berry, who has been speaking to the chairs of major companies for her research. "One chair described one of the women’s CVs as ‘just a little bit of charity work’.

"There is a complete lack of understanding about the voluntary sector. There is dismissal of the expertise from the voluntary sector but also that sexism."

Berry, a former chief executive of WRVS, pointed out that it was still early days for the programme, but said there were serious questions for the voluntary sector about how it is seen by the corporate sector.

She said the view is that the voluntary sector is still based on "passion and values rather than skills and expertise. Hearts not heads".

Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children International and a non-executive director at BT, was highlighted as a rare example of someone who moved into the corporate sector while holding a senior position at a leading charity.

It was pointed out at the meeting that it is far more common for people from the private sector to sit on charity boards.

"All the women have been pioneers in some way and would like to be among the pioneers bringing more women to corporate boards," said Berry.

The programme aims to demonstrate that the women involved are an important part of the potential non-executive talent pool for leading companies.

It is in response to the slow rate of progress towards gender diversity in FTSE 100 and 250 boardrooms, highlighted in a report by Lord Davies in 2011.

All the participants have impressive CVs and experience in other sectors. They are: Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB and chair of the chief executives body Acevo; Jackie Ballard, chief executive of Womankind Worldwide; Sue Killen, chief executive of St John Ambulance; Dame Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam; Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, and Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

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