Helen Rice, chair of the Women's Resource Centre

All-female boards allow women to speak their minds, she tells Paul Jump

Helen Rice says she has always been a feminist. But she admits her appointment as chair of the Women's Resource Centre owed more to the friendship she struck up with Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the WRC, on a voluntary sector management course than to any burning desire she had to get personally involved in the women's movement.

Hayes asked her to become a trustee of the charity a few years later, in the autumn of 2006, when the WRC board expanded from three to 10 people as Hayes repositioned the previously local organisation as a national voice for women's organisations.

"I was the only one with a governance background, so I became chair within a couple of months," says Rice. That background includes periods at Community Matters, the Directory of Social Change and the Charity Commission. Still only 33, she is also the current chief executive of Blackfriars Advice Centre and chair of Community Action Southwark.

"I'm lucky because I've been brought up believing I can do anything," she says. She admits to having been initially wary of an all-female board, but now sees it as a strength. "They are all feisty, opinionated women from a range of ethnic backgrounds and we have energetic debates," she says. "None of them have a problem speaking their mind, but if men were involved it might not be so easy."

For that reason, she admits, a male application would probably lose out to a female one of equal merit - even though she says it would be interesting to have a male board member and there is nothing in the charity's constitution to prevent it.

Rice says women are grossly underrepresented at the top of large charities, but she is often disappointed at their lack of interest in hauling others through the glass ceiling after them. "Part of being a feminist is about female solidarity and helping women be the best they can be," she says.

Rice also gets frustrated by the difficulty of effecting systemic change: "It is great if you can help individuals, but I should be able to feel safe at a bus stop late at night and I don't see that changing. That is very difficult to take given all the energy and passion that you put into it."

She says the relationship between chairs and chief executives is crucial and describes hers with Hayes as excellent. But she admits to sometimes being torn between her personal loyalty to Hayes and her commitment to the other board members. "The more you know someone the harder it is to make hard decisions," she says.

Rice thinks that after three years as chair it might be time for someone else to take over at the WRC. "I am not a policy guru or academic, and they might want a chair who has some national clout," she says.

"Besides, you shouldn't hang around forever. Between three and six years is the right amount of time. After that it needs fresh eyes."


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