Do we need a 50 Per Cent Club?

Amongst large UK charities, less than a third of our Chief Executives are women. That’s a scandal. How are we going to change it?

Photo by Jennifer Hamra on Unsplash

Those of us who work in charity-land often talk about wanting to make the world a better place through our work. As someone who has spent the last decade of my career working in mental health, there is no more important issue to me than that of inequality.

It is simply not right that, in 2020, your opportunities in life can be limited because of your gender, race, sexuality, religion, disability or the economic circumstances into which you were born.

In recent years, the conversation about women’s rights has grown louder and louder. From the Time’s Up movement tackling harassment in the film industry, to Carrie Gracie and Samira Ahmed taking public action over equal pay at the BBC, you could be forgiven for thinking perhaps a tide has turned in terms of the relationship between women and work.

Change is well overdue. In the UK, it was over 50 years ago when female sewing machinists at Ford’s motor plant in Dagenham went on strike over unequal pay — a strike that eventually led to the passing of the landmark 1970 Equal Pay Act.

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Despite that, we’re still very much in the foothills of that climb. As the Fawcett Society’s 2020 Sex and Power Index found last week, just 6 per cent of FTSE 100 Chief Executives are women, and none of those are women of colour.

A successful charity sector needs leadership that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve. This matters not just morally, but also because we know diverse boards make for more effective organisations. For that to happen we need working cultures that support real meritocracy. We must enable people to contribute to their full ability, and to reward that contribution fairly.

But that is not the reality many of us see reflected around us.

Amongst some of our largest charities, just 6 per cent of Chief Executives are from a BAME background. In a sector where two-thirds of the overall workforce are women, amongst the top 100 UK charities just 27 per cent of Chief Executives are women. Whilst much of the debate around diversity focuses on gender and race, other protected characteristics and lived experience matter too.

Women working in UK charities earn on average 7 per cent less than men. The reason for the gap can be partially explained in many ways, including the impact of women taking career breaks to have children. Pay discrimination, that is being paid unequally for doing the same work, undoubtedly makes up a proportion of the gap. A study from KPMG in Australia found that discrimination accounts for 39 per cent of the gender pay gap. In a UK review commissioned under then Prime Minister Theresa May, researchers found that 35 per cent of the drivers of the gender pay gap were down to “unobservable factors” (i.e. likely including discriminatory behaviour against women).

In the corporate world, the 30 Per Cent Club, founded by Dame Helena Morrissey, has had a demonstrable impact in improving the diversity of boards through a wide range of activities. The Club has chapters all over the world which focus on everything from funding MBA scholarships for women, to hosting best practice groups to help businesses incorporate gender diversity into wider strategy development. The Club is an impressive model, and one which we might adopt in the charity sector.

All of us in the charity sector need to up our game. It is not right that less than a third of our biggest charities have a female Chief Executive. And it is not right that so few of our leaders come from a BAME background, as the #charitysowhite movement has powerfully highlighted. Progress has been frustratingly slow and often tokenistic.

It is striking that whilst the majority of colleagues are aware of the problem, and are supportive of change, many are unsure about how they can tackle it. A smaller number appear either blissfully unaware or unconcerned with the sector making progress on this agenda. As highlighted by New Philanthropy Capital’s useful work on diversity in the charity sector, there’s a danger that by considering ourselves and our colleagues as fundamentally liberal and “woke”, it is far too easy to be both blind to our own privilege and mistakenly believe colleagues around us truly share the same perspectives on the value of greater diversity. That is the halo effect in action. It can be difficult to be the person in the room to spell out uncomfortable home truths. Yet we must challenge bias where we find it.

So, what can we do? As a starting point, ask three questions of your organisation:

1. What is the data telling us?

Start with a cold analysis of the facts. What does your current workforce look like? Does it reflect the communities and beneficiaries you serve? Looking at data across your organisation, how are women and other groups represented at a senior level (both on the board and — critically — just below it). What does your recruitment and retention data tell you? What does your gender pay gap data tell you and how might that influence the perceptions of people who might consider working for you? What does your talent pipeline look like, and are there points in that where you are losing diverse workers?

2. How is diversity considered as part of strategy development? How do we design for equality in our organisations?

Okay, that’s two questions in one (!) but they are linked. Without considering diversity in your workforce you’re losing out on top talent and innovative thinking that will help your organisation to thrive. But how much of your thinking on this subject is truly embedded in your strategy development practices?

Design thinking can help tackle challenges every organisation faces in terms of strengthening diversity. In her fabulous book, What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Harvard Professor Iris Bohnet shares details of a study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse. In 1970, only 5 per cent of musicians playing in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, that figure is 35 per cent. That change did not happen by chance. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first to ask musicians to audition behind a screen.

When that was done, it raised the chance that a female musician would advance to the next stage of the audition by 50 per cent and increased the number of women hired.

How can design thinking help your organisation improve diversity?

3. How can I sponsor talented women to get their next promotion?

When organisations are developing their response to the diversity challenge, someone (usually very well-meaning) will suggest offering mentoring opportunities to more women.

HR colleagues, or anyone with clout over the design of such programmes, would be wise to read the research on the value of mentorship versus sponsorship. Studies highlighted in the Harvard Business Review have found that whilst mentoring is a statistically significant predictor of promotion for men, it isn’t for women.

Traditional mentoring, such as offering feedback and advice, doesn’t cut it. What women need is sponsorship — where the mentor goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for them in their next career move. If you are in a position of authority in your organisation, how can you use that position to sponsor talented women to secure their next promotion?

Beyond these individual actions, I hope we will see concerted action in our sector to tackle the systemic issues which hold women back from realising their full potential.

I don’t know about you, but I’m done with waiting. Maybe we need a 50% Club for the charity sector?

Becky Cotton (more about me)

Further Resources

If you’re interested in this topic, here’s three recommendations for you to dive into next:

  1. Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality By Design

This 2016 book was shortlisted for the Financial Times’ Book of the Year Award and for good reason. Harvard’s Professor Bohnet combines insights from a variety of academic fields to the question of behavioural design — in other words, how can we design things better so that our biased minds can get things right? Professor Bohnet then applies that thinking to questions of how we best design our schools, work and manage talent. Essential reading for anyone looking to develop their organisation’s approach to improving diversity.

To get a flavour of some of Professor Bohnet’s work, check out the video below.

2. Carrie Gracie, Equal

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s the sort of book I will be forcefully pressing into the hands of people who have no idea they need to read it for many years to come. Most readers will be very aware of Carrie Gracie and her story. As China Editor at the BBC, she discovered that her male Editor colleague was being paid at least 50 per cent more than her. As she humorously puts it “like Ginger Rogers, I did everything the North America editor did except backwards and in high heels” although in her own case it was “in Mandarin and with a police state at my back”. She bravely took on the BBC in her fight for equal pay. Eventually she won a public apology and over £300,000 in back pay — money she used to set up a legal advice service with the Fawcett Society for low paid women experiencing pay discrimination.

In this book she lays her personal journey bare, including the impact it had on her mental health.

If you’re interested in how organisations can fail to translate their values into practice and the impact this can have on female talent, then look no further than this book. And then buy copies for everyone you know. This woman deserves a god-damn statue.

The below video is of Carrie being interviewed by Julia Gillard (former Prime Minister of Australia). Fascinating insights from two brilliant women.

3. Professor Amina Memon and Grace Wyld, Walking the Talk on Diversity

This short briefing for New Philanthropy Capital is a really interesting exploration of why the charity sector in the UK is making so little progress on the diversity agenda. Despite the moral and business case, why is that so? The authors interviewed 24 charity leaders and trustees, and set out their findings in this paper. It’s a sobering reality check that many readers will recognise — colleagues are too often uncomfortable talking about race, won’t acknowledge hidden biases and shelter behind liberal values.

Founder at Lumino. MBA from Cambridge University. Fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.