Closing the gap on female leadership

11 March 2020
LeadershipEquality, Diversity and Inclusion
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In a blog to accompany our 'Missing Out' research, Sarah Tite looks at the problems that persist within our work environment and what we can do to close the female leadership gap in fundraising.

 write this as a woman who has built her career in the charity sector over the last 25 years, as a mum who has worked part time for 17 years, as a female senior leader at the Mental Health Foundation and as a One of Many™ Certified Coach, who welcomes the Chartered Institute of Fundraising and Change Collective report Missing Out: Understanding the female leadership gap in fundraising.

It seems I am in a minority, not just as a woman but as one who is over 40, working part time and being part of a senior leadership team. But it is still startling for me to read that while 74% of professional fundraisers in the UK are women, this is not equally reflected in fundraising leadership where there are only 52 female directors in the top 100 fundraising charities, meaning we are missing more than 20, and only 25 female CEOs leading our top 100 charities.

I know from personal experience that working conditions and environment can have a huge impact on our mental health and ability to perform well at work. Women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to report having a common mental health problem as full-time employed men and although we all have mental health, like we do physical health, our experiences are personal and affected by a range of social and environmental factors, including work.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

What is the problem with our work environment? From my work with One of Many™ I have come to understand that a key barrier to women progressing into leadership is that many workplaces operate with an unconscious bias towards what can be deemed as traditionally masculine traits. By which I mean measuring success in terms of achievement, assertiveness and material reward rather than the traits that are often a key component of leadership programmes, and have been traditionally associated with the feminine that are more communal, relations-oriented and nurturing – according to this report on Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness.

All of us are at our best when we are in balance, to show up as our best selves we need a mix of all these traits, qualities and characteristics. According to the philosophy and model of One of Many™, even though women may need a good bit of masculine energy to push through on a Thursday afternoon (I don’t work on Fridays!) if we always operate from the masculine we can burn out, become overwhelmed which in turn could lead us to stop believing in ourselves and therefore our ability to lead.

Closing the gap

What can we do to close the gap? For me there are two aspects – one is self-belief and the second a compassionate response, just like we have for our beneficiaries. So it was great to read the recommendation in the ‘Missing Out’ report focused on taking up a mentor, training and support. Whilst these interventions are helpful, I do believe that to build self-belief we need to also consider ‘coaching’. There is some evidence that when women act in ways that are viewed to be traditionally masculine, they are more likely to experience prejudice or discrimination in the workplace4 and focused coaching centred in how a person thinks, feels and acts in situations may help women navigate these challenges without endorsing gender stereotypes. At the same time, we need to encourage people to think of their own self-care not as a luxury but an important part of looking after themselves.

The second aspect is having a compassionate response to wellbeing role-modelled at the most senior levels. At the Mental Health Foundation we are striving to lead with initiatives that include protecting non-work time during the week and at weekends, with a clear expectation that staff are not required to send, receive or respond to emails between 7pm and 7am; that staff may take up to three paid non-consecutive days per annum for their personal wellbeing needs; all of which is underpinned by flexible working policies including an Employee Assistance Programme.

Let me finish by agreeing with what Carol Akiwumi, Chair of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee says, that most “importantly everyone has a positive role to play” in closing the female leadership gap in charities. By building workplaces that value a range of different qualities, and by developing our individual team members’ self-belief, we will develop into the leaders that our beneficiaries need us to be.

Sarah Tite
Sarah Tite
Director of Fundraising and Communication, Mental Health Foundation and One of Many™ Certified Coach
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