Viewpoint: Why we do well on the gender agenda

The ethos of many charities has helped to promote equality of opportunity in the workplace.

Cherie Booth, the barrister, recently made a powerful speech at Chatham House, highlighting the remaining obstacles to women achieving equality with men and thereby realising their full potential.

It was a reminder that instead of picking over her appearance, weight and friends during the 10 years that her husband, Tony Blair, was Prime Minister, we might have done better to listen to what this human rights lawyer had to say.

In the voluntary sector, we have much to be proud of in the matter of equal opportunities. A survey by benchmarking company Agenda Consulting shows that the proportion of women in top-level positions in the voluntary sector is twice as high as the equivalent figure for the rest of the economy. When it comes to chief executives, women make up only 2 per cent elsewhere, but 33 per cent in charities.

Since one of a trustee's roles is to ensure equality of opportunity is a reality, it seems we have something here to be proud of.

But there is a danger in seeing the advance of women in our sector as a question of principle. The most effective way of dispelling prejudice is to show prejudiced people that it isn't in their best interest to cling to it.

So whatever the strength of anti-discrimination legislation and enforcement by trustees, the real reason we have so many women at or near the top of the third sector is that they have proved to be as good as any of the chaps competing with them, if not better.

Historically, another factor may have led to the healthy representation of women in charity: the perception that working for a charity wasn't a 'proper' job.

That picture has changed in recent decades, although many women are still not paid as much as their male counterparts. Indeed, the median pay for female chief executives is £49,543, compared with the male median of £57,240 - a difference of 6.7 per cent (Third Sector, 31 October).

But I wonder if there remains something at the core of the third sector that means it has such a strong record on equality of opportunity in the workplace.

At the basis of most charities is a commitment to righting injustices, ending prejudice and upholding human rights. And they don't come more fundamental than equality of opportunity for men and women.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust.

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