OPINION: Female leaders need a hand

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Wondering about your next executive career move? Take your pick.

There has been no shortage of senior voluntary-sector posts advertised in the past week. Such was the sense of competition that three of the major disability charities - Mencap, Scope and RNID - rushed to advertise their chief executive positions on the same day.

Bookies are refusing to take bets on how many of the posts will be filled by men. After all, the odds are overwhelming. Only 4 per cent of the sector's large organisations are led by women, despite the fact that they account for two-thirds of the workforce.

Misplaced belief in the need for macho-style leadership, less than "family-friendly

working conditions and chauvinism probably all contribute. Women's visibility in the sector decreases as size (and power) rises. Around 80 per cent of small charities are headed by women, but step into the world of the big guys and it all changes.

At the launch of a voluntary-sector women's network earlier this year, it was acknowledged that too little attention had been paid to increasing the number of women at the top table.

But the answers have already been well rehearsed elsewhere. Next week at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference delegates will be asking why only five of their 53 MPs are women.

No doubt there will be lots of talk about the need for more training, improved childcare support, mentors and the rooting out of discrimination.

But many in politics already acknowledge that the scale of cultural change needed to encourage a great deal more women into parliament will only come about with a change in the gender balance - and that requires an active push. With the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act earlier this year, political parties have gained the right to use positive discrimination to try to improve the gender balance of their parties.

It would be nice to think that many of the chief executive posts currently waiting to be filled in the voluntary sector will go to women. But I'm willing to bet they won't. Perhaps it's time to consider the use of a bit of positive discrimination?

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