The Charity Finance Group's recent annual conference heard from the awe-inspiring Dame Stephanie Shirley.
A major slice of Shirley's address related to the challenges she had faced as a woman in the predominantly male business world. The environment she described seemed alien; when she started out, there was no equal pay, no anti-discrimination legislation and women even needed their husbands' permission to open bank accounts.
Meanwhile, Kate Rogers reflected in her column in last month's edition of Third Sector magazine (June, page 57) that women are still under-represented in investment and finance. As I looked across the sea of faces and inspiring female speakers at our conference, it was clear that we've come a long way as a profession; but although the situation Shirley described seems like another world, we have no cause to be complacent. There remain challenges; gender equality at all levels, in all professions, is a long way off.
A recent survey of our members found that 58 per cent of female respondents held the most senior roles in their organisations, compared with 71 per cent of male respondents. Although a lot of the women were younger than the men, women still lagged behind, even when you adjusted for age. Other surveys repeatedly show that women don't attain the highest positions in equal numbers.
However, women are entering finance in greater numbers. I understand that female students make up an equal proportion of the new intake for accounting qualifications, so I don't think finance itself is putting women off. There is no difference between the genders in financial competence; nothing in my experience has ever shown women finance professionals to be any less technically competent. So are these jobs seen as too demanding and too inflexible by women who are often juggling work with being the primary carers for children? Alternatively, are we as a sector just failing to appoint willing candidates?
Shirley spoke of professional women who had left their professions to marry or have children, and of the need to frame working environments so as to attract talent back into work and offer the flexibility necessary to help women juggle their job and home commitments. Decades on, we still have a long way to go.
Some of the solutions lie with women themselves. We still do the lion's share of childcare and perhaps shy away from more senior roles that we perceive as difficult to juggle with being a parent. Maybe if men were equally able to share childcare responsibilities and if we were to have a more parent-friendly working environment generally, this might drive up the number of women in senior roles.
The CFG is working hard to change the image of finance and finance professionals. Senior roles should be seen as exciting business partnerships, strategically placed and connected to the cause. Finance roles need to be understood as being about more than analysis, process and financial results. We need to seek people who can innovate, influence and be diplomatic, and who can connect with people.
In my view, we all have a responsibility to make workplaces attractive and flexible so they can accommodate all the demands of modern life. In particular, we should stop seeing senior finance roles as all about the hard numbers – they are so much more. If we did, we would not only witness more women taking financial leadership positions, but we might also improve the productivity and impact of the sector as a whole.
Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group