Saturday, 18 May 2024
Saturday, 18 May 2024

Gender equality: being a female leader in the charity sector

By Rosemary Macdonald, CEO at UK Community Foundations

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, gender equality is ‘a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world’. Gender equality is the UN’s chosen theme for February this year.

I have been in the community foundation world for 15 years. Over that time, I have noticed a significant shift in the leadership of community foundations. We now have a majority of women as CEOs across the country. The trends we see today in our community foundations reflect the national picture around the UK. Across the voluntary sector, 58% of CEOs and 40% of trustees are women, according to ACEVO.  

Charity CEOs, regardless of their gender, now face unprecedented challenges. On top of the reduced funding and increased demand for services across the charity sector, charity CEOs need to be able to keep their team motivated and passionate, make sure the books balance, always be on the lookout for funding opportunities, report back to donors, manage our boards, make sure the IT works, ensure that our marketing is dynamic – especially under the shifting power of social media – be able to respond to crises and ensure that we fulfil our charitable objectives in a fast-changing world. All while continuing our own motivation and training as we deliver an inspiring strategy. Phew!

So why would anyone take on such a challenge? Speaking to my female colleagues across the network, executing the role of a charity CEO largely comes down to wanting to make a difference and feeling the commitment is worth it. The fact is that leadership in any field is a challenge. You can’t do it unless you have great people around you. Whether we take inspiration from our teams or our professional networks, maintaining positivity in a crisis is critical.  

The journey to gender equality in the UK is by no means complete and it is vital that we continue on the right path. It is not enough to balance figures on a spreadsheet. 

A recent discussion with my team about their workplace experiences brought home some of the underlying challenges women still feel today. The most frequently mentioned point was the concern of people’s perceptions in the workplace – the pressure to give work 100% all the time in order to progress – and that personal well-being and responsibilities are often still seen to ‘get in the way’ of that. 

The charity sector is no stranger to staff burnout and frequent staff turnovers. One must ask if our output needs to be 100% all the time? Surely the main benefit of being part of a team is that it ebbs and flows; when one person needs to step back for a while, others pick up the slack. In turn, that support should be reciprocated. When you compare the inefficiency of having to recruit every year to having a more compassionate approach to the human condition, surely a bit of give and take is the better option.  

The other thing that struck me was how much pressure my female colleagues put on themselves to be perfect. The perfect employee, the perfect mother, the perfect partner, the perfect role model. When organisations continue to reinforce that perception, you can soon feel like you are not living up to the ideal. As a female leader, I understand that feeling. But none of us are perfect, nor should we be. If we were perfect then we’d never know how to recover from mistakes, nor learn or develop resilience. Not being perfect is a blessing if we want to grow.

Creating a more diverse culture of CEOs across civil society brings the opportunity to develop a more inclusive workplace at all professional levels. There is much to do in addressing the gender pay gap and providing career development for our people of all protected characteristics. As a female leader, I think the opportunity for senior professionals to better the dynamics for those who follow in our footsteps is one that must be acted on if we want to achieve that ‘peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world’ for all.


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