"Hope", a CSO special plenary session hosted by UN Women
"Hope", a CSO special plenary session hosted by UN Women UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

What is stopping women from becoming NGO leaders?

70% of INGO sector staff are women, but only 30% of those women reach the top of their organisations, according to FAIR SHARE. Even fewer of those women are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).

The UK’s third sector is less diverse than the public and private sector, despite much of its work on gender and racial equality. So what can we as NGOs do to support women and women of colour to thrive in our sector?

Social and systemic barriers

Women still face a range of barriers to progressing in their careers: from institutional ones, such as a lack of development opportunities, to social attitudes, like not being seen as competent enough to take on senior roles.

Organisational cultures and inadequate policies don’t encourage or support women who are new mothers and need flexible working arrangements. The idea that a woman can’t be an accomplished senior leader and a carer and a mother persists in our society.

These barriers perpetuate an environment where women aren’t seen as equal to men, and the perception that women aren’t considered “as good as” them at their jobs. The UK’s gender pay gap highlights the disproportionate salaries men get over women doing the same roles. Women often feel devalued and are often dissuaded from applying for jobs with higher salaries.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Our weekly email newsletter, Network News, is an indispensable weekly digest of the latest updates on funding, jobs, resources, news and learning opportunities in the international development sector.

Get Network News

These problems and attitudes are deeply-rooted systemic issues that we have to openly, honestly and frankly discuss if we want to change a system that has been designed to benefit white middle-class men in society.

We need to better champion women as they move through their careers. NGOs are already becoming more flexible in terms of working policies and culture, for example, implementing shared parental leave. But why are there still so few women CEOs and chairs of NGOs?

To answer this question, we held an event with Mayvin and the Women’s International Leadership Development (WILD) research group, which brought together over 50 people from NGOs, government and business.

Below are some highlights and key actions from the day.

How can we support female talent?

The event drew out interesting thinking and new ideas for organisations to nurture women throughout their careers. Some key ways we can create more supportive pathways for women include:

  • Openly acknowledge the lack of women and people of colour in senior roles. This is the first step to change. If you aren’t engaged, then nothing will change.
  • Create a meaningful feedback loop within organisations for women and their line managers. If women are formally encouraged to voice their concerns and ambitions in a safe space, they will feel more supported personally and feel confident going for senior roles within organisations.
  • Encourage women (and men) to take time for self care. We should create organisational cultures that encourage women’s wellbeing, so they can feel supported and grow.
  • Leaders at senior levels of organisations should take a feminist approach to their management style. ActionAid’s ten feminist principles are a great example of this.
  • Have sponsors within organisations for women (and people of colour). These staff members don’t have to be women and will be able champion them without a personal agenda.

To see all our ideas, check out this mind map from the event.

What’s race got to do with it?

This picture becomes even more problematic when we consider race. ACEVO’s Pay and Equalities Survey found that only 3% of charity chief executives were from BAME backgrounds, a percentage that has fallen over the last ten years. Charity Job’s survey found that 54% of BAME candidates said they’d experienced discrimination on account of their race or ethnicity. The figures rose even more for women who are black and over 50.

Here are some things organisations can try to cultivate a more equitable and fairer sector:

  1. Engage and communicate, especially when the concept may seem alien to you. Don’t shy away from the unknown or uncomfortable conversations about race with people of colour. We can only change through open, respectful conversation.
  2. Have a diverse board and senior management team. This way staff can see themselves represented in leadership teams and have professional role models that actually look like them.
  3. Change your recruitment practices. Scrutinise job descriptions for any biases, such as removing gendered language. Organisations should also review where they advertise jobs: ask yourself whether you’re reaching a diverse group of people or just recruiting from the same pool of candidates.
  4. A clear strategy and plan to meaningfully encourage diversity in all areas of work. Instead of tokenistic unmet quotas, set and commit to meeting diversity targets. And make sure these people are involved in the planning and not just brought in at the last minute.
  5. Implement brave policies and commit to acting on them. Policies don’t mean change. They must be practiced to change behaviours.