08/06/2015 08:51 BST | Updated 04/06/2016 06:59 BST

Can We Help Boardrooms Find an Untapped Reservoir of Talented Women?

I'm an old-school feminist. I joined the workforce a week after my 16th birthday, less than two years after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act hit the statute books. Although we had an Act of Parliament to say that we couldn't be discriminated against, I'm not sure that everyone believed it. Certainly my dad didn't.

In 1978, when I applied for a job as clerical assistant in an audit office, he told me that I wouldn't get it because 'they'll want a lad for that'. I applied, I got it and I found myself in a place that sent me to college.

Eight years later, I was a qualified accountant. I had also climbed a career ladder into management positions. I still faced the culture of 'they'll want a lad for that' so I wore grey suits, behaved in a very businesslike manner and met any belief that I might be planning to have children (career suicide back then) with a very clear statement that they weren't part of my plan.

I was a Finance Director before the age of 30 and a CEO well before I hit 40. I was a trailblazing woman. I know this, because I rarely had to queue for the loo when I went to meetings.

Times have changed. I am still a CEO, but I have two daughters and - although my business suit habit remains firmly entrenched - I am much more at home with my girly/mumsy side too.

Does that mean that we old-school feminists have won? Hell no. There are still plenty of spaces where 'they'll want a lad for that'.

Take the boardroom for instance. The statistics speak for themselves. This year, women account for just over 23% of all board members in the FTSE 100 companies. Yes, an increase from 2011 but still not high enough in my book. And women only account for 3% of board chairs in the FTSE 100 companies.

Which begs the question 'why not?'

When I talk with people (men, mainly) about this, their response is often:

'We'd like to have more women on our board, but we just can't find women who are willing/able/available'.

Setting aside the fact that this viewpoint seeks to make women responsible for their own lack of representation; I decided to look for a solution.

I didn't have to look far.

As a CEO in the charity sector, I am surrounded by capable, talented, successful women CEOs. Compared with just 5% of CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, women are 17% of the CEOs of top 100 charities. I queue for the loo at meetings all the time these days.

Just in case the word 'charity' conjures up images of fluffy bunnies and magic money trees, think again. Many charities listed in the report 'Women Count - Charity leaders 2012: Benchmarking the participation of women in the UK's largest charities' are also registered as companies and their net assets would put most within the range of the market capitalisation of FTSE 250 companies. These are substantial, complex businesses. The charity that I lead earns over 95% of its income from public sector contracts. We're subject to the same commercial pressures as our private sector counterparts. We still have to pay the bills and balance the books, within an environment of significant regulation and media scrutiny.

So for me, the question isn't 'where are the talented women?' but 'how do we connect this amazing reservoir of talent with the unmet need in our boardrooms?'

I'm not suggesting for one minute that we headhunt talented women away from the charity sector. However, I am suggesting that we create pathways that enable them to consider, and be considered for, Non-Executive Director (NED) positions.

Women in charities have a lot to offer as NEDs, not only from our capacity to run complex businesses, but also to provide a fresh perspective on things that many businesses find tricky, such as corporate social responsibility, diversity and diversification. After all, it's our day job to provide public benefit, and many so-called 'hard to reach people', with unmet needs, walk through our front doors all the time. Entrepreneurs should be bursting with inspiration from the market intelligence we have to offer.

So where do we go from here? This blog is just the start of a conversation. I'm interested to hear views from the corporate boardroom and from the world of charity CEOs, so I'm going to be reaching out to people who know more about this than I do, and that includes you.

If you have any thoughts, ideas or advice that you want to share, you can reach me via

This article was originally published on the CBI's Great Business Debate website.