Newsmaker: Equality opportunities

The YWCA's new chief executive, Deborah Annetts, is keen to influence the national debate about equality for young women.

Deborah Annetts
Deborah Annetts

Deborah Annetts is thinking about the abolition of slavery - historical perspective is, perhaps, a necessary quality for the head of an organisation founded 150 years ago. And the YWCA's new chief executive is concerned that today's charities have lost some of the fervour that animated the great 19th century reform campaigns.

"If you were running that campaign today, would it get off the ground?" she asks. "People would probably still be working through the process and looking at what the targets were, and it would take much longer now than it actually did."

Annetts, a former lawyer who took on her own profession in a number of sex discrimination cases in the 90s, is impatient for change. She turned her back on a legal career to join the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, now Dignity in Dying, in 2001.

"I chose the not-for-profit sector because I wanted to bring the best of the private sector into a values-based organisation," she says. "It was a conscious decision to take the entrepreneurialism of the private sector and try to merge it with the third sector."

That ambition brushed up against what Annetts perceives as a bureaucratic mentality in parts of the sector. "Some, though not all, non-profit organisations become so bound up with process that they lose track of what they are here to do," she says. "We are not part of social services and we shouldn't be part of the status quo. We are here to do big things."

The big things on the horizon at YWCA, an organisation Annetts joined barely a month ago, are likely to be an outspoken stance on issues of sexism and gender. Traditionally a service provider, YWCA launched Respect Young Mums, its first public policy campaign, only three years ago. But its campaigning profile is set to expand under a woman who cut her teeth representing women in the City of London who had hit the glass ceiling.

"In my experience as a sex discrimination lawyer, women, and young women in particular, were always treated in a more disadvantageous way," says Annetts. "That's about inherent discrimination in society. I don't yet know what that means for the work we want to do, but I hope we become an organisation that is effective at influencing policy around the discrimination young women face."

She is looking forward to the Government's new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which is due to launch in October with the aim of eliminating discrimination in society. "This is a fantastic opportunity for the YWCA to influence the national debate about what equality means for young women," she says.

Annetts might also turn her attention to some of the voluntary sector's internal debates. Several years in the sector as a senior manager and trustee have left her troubled about charities' governance arrangements.

"As a board member, you are supposed to be setting strategy," she says. "But you rarely have enough information to do that, so you are often doing it in the dark. I feel really uncomfortable about that. But if the board has enough information to set the strategy, then, too often, they will start dabbling in operational matters as well."

Annetts doesn't have ready-made answers, but she urges boards and chief executives to be visionary in deciding how they can deliver something meaningful to their beneficiaries.

There is one area, though, in which Annetts regards charities as unquestionably superior to businesses.

"I have not perceived sex discrimination in the sector," she says. "It's totally different from the private sector, where discrimination is still rife. Capitalism is a different animal."

Annetts CV

2007: Chief executive, YWCA
2001: Chief executive, Dignity in Dying
2000: Assistant director, Public Concern at Work
1989: Solicitor, Theodore Goddard

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