Oct 30, 2019 | Penny Lawrence

Why are there so few women CEOs and Chairs in INGOs?

We are a group of determined senior leaders in INGOs (ActionAid UK, BRAC International, HelpAge International, Plan UK, Restless Development) who are committed to making our organisations more inclusive. Whilst many INGOs appear to have a healthy gender balance, there are still fewer women CEOs and Chairs than our number reflects in a sector that explicitly recognises and espouses women’s empowerment. 70% of INGO staff are women, but only 30-35% reach the top of their organisations.

We – WILD – are using an evidence based, action research approach, along with a volunteer convenor, wonderful partners – Mayvin, Bond, FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders, and a host of others to discover what exactly is getting in the way of progress.

Despite the actions that many INGOs have taken to be ‘good employers’ (flexible working, carers and shared paternity leave, encouraging women in talent pipelines), the needle doesn’t seem to have shifted. The problem is systematic – given recent events we are frustrated that so little is being done to think more deeply about what really needs to change within our walls. Policies abound and that’s great – but if behaviours don’t allow the policies to be implemented, then organisational norms and accepted behaviours need to be challenged. Unconscious bias and traditional models of leadership seem to frustrate attempts to change and hold back too many talented staff.

Successful women leaders learn how to adapt their natural styles – as with any leader – to suit an organisation and get things done, but the extent to which we as women leaders have had to do this has taken some of us out of our comfort zone. We feel we have unconsciously become part of ‘the system’ in order to fit in and to have impact. How can we lead with authenticity to be even more effective in achieving the social justice we strive for?

Action Research update #1

The research each of our core participants is undertaking is guided by feminist principles that we have co-created through shared leadership and inclusive, participatory approaches. We are using narrative qualitative methodologies as well as more traditional data collection that can be repeated and expanded to include others who may want to join us. Personal commitment, learning and self-care are as important as organisational buy-in to the research and a commitment to share our findings.

Step 1 – Deciding our key research questions

Each INGO has adapted the following questions to suit their own INGO but these are core to all:

1. What is encouraging and enabling those self-identifying as women to progress into senior leadership roles?

2. What is blocking women from progressing into senior leadership roles?

3. What difference /change? would make the most sustainable difference to organisational cultures to enable more women to progress into the top senior leadership roles?

Step 2 – Gathering baseline data (ongoing until December 2019)

We are now starting to mine the data that is already available and identify what (if any) further data we may need to fill in the gaps.  Bond will be asking members to help fill quantitative data gaps and WILD will focus on the qualitative data to unearth the nature of the challenge before we focus on solutions.

Step 3 – Learning from others (October 2019- January 2020)

What actions seem to have worked to tackle similar challenges in other organisations/ sectors? Mayvin will lead a workshop at in November to explore evidence and learning experiences. We hope to invite more INGO participants to this event. If you have examples of good practise in overcoming blockers/enablers to share from any sector – do please let us know.

Step 4 – Agreeing actions we want to take and how we will monitor their impact. (Jan- April 2020)

We want to share the learning more widely through this blog, at the Bond conference in March 2020 and through a report that Perrett Laver are kindly sponsoring Bond to produce and any other events we get invited to!

Step 5 – Taking action and monitoring impact, reporting on results and sharing learnings (Mar –Jul 2020)

Step 6 – Round 2

Current members may want to do a second round of action research, others may want to join (Sept 2020 onwards)

There are real issues of intersectionality here that we recognise. Our research questions are an entry point – a way in to what otherwise seems an overwhelming, complex, vague ambition to be ‘more inclusive’ .

We hope that ongoing data collection will better monitor gender dynamics and enable cross sectoral comparisons and learning.  We want to enable sustained progress and the international development sector to benefit from talented leaders whatever their gender. We remain optimistic and are determined we can do this. Join us!