Dec 9, 2019 | Penny Lawrence

The Credibility Gap

The WILD action research group held a stimulating cross sector learning event in London on Nov 20th to learn from others on what blocks and what enables women to become CEOs and Chairs –  whatever the organisation. A room full of passionate women and men from the civil service, the business community and the voluntary sector; from engineers to organisational development practitioners, from CEOs to interns, including FAIR SHARE members, debated what works from their diverse perspectives and experiences.

We sought collective wisdom on: What’s needed for feminist leadership to flourish? What hinders/enables women from underrepresented groups to progress to senior leadership roles? How important is data? What data? What has really driven change and enabled more women to progress as leaders? Is bridging the credibility gap important?

The credibility gap – Can we be successful if external messaging isn’t aligned with internal realities?

A lot of NGOs espouse the importance of women’s equality and empowerment externally, but have considerable gaps in women’s full participation in senior leadership internally. This is one of many examples. We perpetuate ‘white saviour’, hero fundraising messages like ‘saving lives’ rather than acknowledging the reality of front line local communities and our reliance on local civil society partners. We tell the public we only spend 10% on admin costs, not counting in country costs to remain competitive, rather than sharing the fill cost of compliance and accountability as expensive intermediaries, rather than being confidently open about the cost of the value we feel we add.

Highlights of our shared wisdom…

Does the credibility gap matter?

YES – whatever the sector. As we’ve learnt from the most recent safeguarding issues, an organisation whose external messaging isn’t aligned with its internal practice is likely to be found out. As a business colleague put it, ‘You’re finished’. But it’s also unethical and affects your results. It isn’t an organisation that talented staff will feel proud to work for or want to be part of and without organisational alignment it’s near impossible to deliver high quality outcomes. Yet we all do it.

What’s worked to close/narrow the credibility gap in other sectors? 

1.    Courage – to listen, to speak up, seek out those gaps, to make them visible and prioritise action to do something about them.

2.    Willingness to change what’s happening internally (before it hits the headlines) –it’s likely to need investment in organisational practise change. It may affect your competitive edge in the short term, but is still cheaper than a public shaming. You may need to significantly change your external messaging as well as you internal humility and openness. It is likely to need long term commitment, plans and resources but can often lead to new opportunities – ‘fortune favours the brave’. Some in the oil and gas industry, for example, are now helping to realise the potential of renewables. INGOs could more be more open and humble that they have gender equality issues within their organisation and openly share what they are doing about it, inviting others to hold them to account.

3.    Valuing your Values – start by asking for help. For example, ask staff to evaluate you against the values and external messages you espouse. Ask ‘Would you be happy to tell your Grandma about what happens inside your organisation?’ Create formal and informal ‘water cooler’ spaces to enable people to answer and to listen. Make you values ‘live’ in all you do – give examples of what they mean in practice and use the values in everything you do – role design, talent spotting, feminist leadership. Publish your values performance alongside your financial performance. Appreciate and recognise those that deliver against the values, not just financial targets. With trust levels in society rock bottom – authenticity matters to attract staff and customers alike.

–      Penny Lawrence, with huge thanks to all who attended ‘Feminist Futures’ and so generously shared their wisdom