Interview: Sue Tibballs

The outgoing chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation offers advice about being a woman leader in the sector

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

Women make up two-thirds of the voluntary sector workforce but only 46 per cent of charities have female chief executives and only 24 per cent have female chairs, according to figures from the chief executives body Acevo. The disparity in the average pay between male and female chief executives is about £7,500 per year.

Sue Tibballs last month stepped down as chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation to become a freelance consultant. She worked at the foundation for seven years and says that, though sport is traditionally male-dominated, she was unbowed by the challenge.

"The sports industry is one of the least progressive in British society - one where you still see outbreaks of old-fashioned sexism," says Tibballs. "I had to be confident and have the drive to introduce myself. I found I had 'rarity' value, but it was hard work to get people to engage with you."

Tibballs says she is encouraged by the number of female chief executives in the voluntary sector, but major social change is required to level the playing field.

"These are high figures compared with other sectors," she says. "But the big issue is the ability to prioritise work above all else, and women are still expected to take primary responsibility for their families. I think the sector does not work hard enough to help women progress their careers while having families."

But Tibballs says that the rarity of female chairs is of concern because being a chair is a part-time role that should favour women trying to balance careers with family commitments.

"I worry that this discrepancy says something about the perceived value of women in this role," she says. "Charities often go for chairs who have a profile, but not necessarily the time."

Women bring a different approach to their work that is often more cooperative and less ego-driven, says Tibballs. And she s ays there is an argument for splitting the chief executive role into two, with one person managing the internal work and the other being its public face.

"Women should either be more open to doing both or get others to do the advocacy and representative side of the chief executive role," she says.

Tibballs has occasionally been on the receiving end of sexism, but she is not afraid to put her foot down.

"I closed a meeting I was holding once and told the man I wanted him to leave the building - he was quite influential, too," she says.

Tibballs says the charity sector is in a muddle over chief executive pay and the gender pay gap is often caused by insecurity. "Women have to have the confidence to argue for their worth, but they find this more difficult than men do and are more willing to settle for what they are offered," she says.

Tibballs has several pieces of advice for women who hope to lead charities one day. "Set your sights on achieving what you want, do it for the right reasons and be realistic about the demands of leadership," she says.

"And remember to ask for support from your family and friends, because it's not about working long hours all the time - it's about working well. Nine times out of 10, I was home by 6pm for dinner with my family."

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