May 3, 2019 | Penny Lawrence

What is encouraging and blocking women from stepping into top leadership roles?

At the March 2019 Bond conference, where over 1000 professionals in the international development community gather for an annual fix of stimulation and networking, 84 participants opted to join a workshop to share their views on why there are so few women leaders in the top jobs in our sector, when we espouse so readily externally on gender equality.

Most participants were women from diverse backgrounds in our sector. 6 men joined us too. Each participant was asked to reflect on what they felt blocked them and what encouraged them to step into senior leadership roles. They captured their answers from their intense conversations and then themed their results. I’ve captured a summary and the headline findings below. Whilst this doesn’t pretend to be a rigorous piece of research – the results give us an indication of the depth of change that may be needed inside organisations signing up to ‘FAIR SHARE’ campaign to increase the number of women in top leadership roles. Burkhard and Helene thought you might be interested to hear about the results (Many participants at the workshop came from NGOs that have signed up to ‘FAIR SHARE’, though few seemed aware of it or the campaign.)

Headline Blockers

Lack of confidence/self-belief was sadly the most frequently sited blocker with patriarchy, sexism and unconscious bias following a close second – ouch. Many also felt that they wanted more of a work-life balance than current leadership role configurations seem to offer.

Headline Encouragers

Providing good quality line management support makes most difference and mentoring/coaching and sponsorship is needed as well as/more than networks (as in the research into the UK private sector)

Participants I chatted to felt a mixture of optimism at a number of NGOs adopting feminist principles in the wake of the #MeToo challenge, but also scepticism at how we will create enough safe spaces to enable our staff and volunteers to tell us what they really think without judging them. They then wanted to know what actions will be seriously taken to create more inclusive cultures with more appealing leadership roles, more accepting of difference – enabling more women, more young, BAME, more disabled leaders to realise their potential and co-create new solutions to intractable challenges in reaching the SDGs. The FAIR SHARE targets and data monitoring are a fantastic start, but in support of the ‘safe spaces’ and meaningful action plans to realise fair shares I am co-ordinating a group of senior women leaders in INGOs – ActionAid UK, Plan UK, Restless Development, HelpAge and possibly Concern Worldwide, Oxfam GB and Practical Action to start action research to explore the blockers and encouragers in their INGOs in more depth and then experiment with different approaches and actions. We have garnered the support and guidance of willing academics and organisational development practitioners across sectors and we are keen to share our learning on what’s working and what isn’t more widely. We have in mind blogs rather than papers. We are keen to apply feminist principles from the outset – collaborative approaches, learning as we go, taking care of ourselves as we venture through our challenges. If any other FAIR SHARE members are interested in hearing more or joining the core group – do let us know.