Leadership: More women at the top

Indira Das-Gupta talks to Rachel Whale, chief executive of personnel development agency Vanilla and founder of the networking forum Third Sector Women, about her plans to bring more women into senior roles in the voluntary world.

Attend any voluntary sector conference and men are sure to be outnumbered by women - often by a substantial margin. Paradoxically, however, women in the sector are still less likely to reach chief executive level. And when they do get to the top, it is likely to be at smaller organisations. They are also paid less.

Frustrated by this inequality, Rachel Whale, chief executive of Vanilla, an agency specialising in personnel development, has launched a networking forum called Third Sector Women.

Whale worked in the sector for 15 years and gained most of her managerial experience as operations director for mental health charity Rethink. She left because she felt she would be better able to realise her ambitions outside it.

"In order to have a good work-life balance, I felt I had to leave the sector and set up my own business," she explains. "We need more flexible working environments. For women with children, a job-share at chief executive level is like gold dust. Third Sector Women wants to encourage job-sharing by starting a match service. We can also help promote the idea to organisations."

The current lack of flexible working might explain why women make up 70 per cent of the sector's workforce but only 43 per cent of its chief executives. Only 27 per cent of chief executives of charities with turnovers of more than £5m are women. To make matters worse, there is a 10 per cent pay gap between male and female chief executives. The median salary for the former is £55,000; for the latter it's £49,893.

Third Sector Women already has 80 women on board. Between 15 and 20 per cent of them are chief executives, but Whale is keen to emphasise that the organisation is open to women at all levels.

Whale says: "There is already an organisation called Groundbreakers, which is open only to female chief executives. We want to support women all across the sector. Women leaders can be many different things. You can be a volunteer manager, for example."

Whale is also looking into creating an alumni organisation as an offshoot to the forum. "Staff turnover in the sector is high, so we should be talking to women who have left it in order to draw on their talent," she says.

But Whale draws the line at positive discrimination. Although she hopes to profile jobs through Third Sector Women, she doesn't expect it to advertise positions reserved for women. "I would expect a post to be reserved for a woman only if the beneficiary group required it," she says. "For example, a charity working with vulnerable women might call for a post to be reserved. Otherwise, I think most women would want to get a job only through their own talent, not because it had been ring-fenced."

Whale believes that one reason for the dearth of women in senior positions in the sector is that those who succeed often pull the ladder up after them.

There's a lack of good female role models, she says. Indeed, a lot of women have negative experiences of dealing with women leaders, some of whom adopt macho management styles.

For Whale, it is important for women to feel that they shouldn't have to emulate supposedly masculine styles of management. She wants to encourage them to be themselves, and she's interested in fostering a culture in which women can rise through the ranks instead of coming in from the outside.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests women are being 'helicoptered' in from other sectors because we lack career development and don't grow our own," she says. "Perhaps there's a perception that people in other sectors are more professional."

Samantha Rennie, director of Handicap International UK, gave a presentation on Third Sector Women, of which she is a member, at chief executives body Acevo's international conference in Paris in March (see page 11). That sort of activity will help Whale in her ambition to develop international exchanges involving women from voluntary sector organisations all over the world.

"Exchanges foster cultural diversity and can be a source of inspiration," she says. "Modern technology means you don't even have to fly across the world - you can have virtual exchanges."

Ultimately, however, the key aim of Third Sector Women is to redress the balance and create equality for women working in charities here in the UK.

"The sector aims to be inclusive, but it sometimes overlooks women," says Whale. "I hope Third Sector Women can help to change that."

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