Women-led governance and leadership – an ongoing area for improvement
17 August 2023 | By Rebecca Ward
“It’s worrying to see the declining number of women leading the largest organisations in our sector, and therefore the imbalance in representation.”
– Jane Ide, Civil Society, 2023
Many women make up the workforce within the charity sector, but not all women go on to leadership roles; according to Clara Miller, “two-thirds of charity sector employees are women, but less than a quarter go on to become Chief Execs”. Additionally, there are concerns as to whether enough women are occupying board positions in both corporate and charity governance. Men still outnumber women in charity board positions by two to one. Under Financial Conduct Authority rules, “women should make up at least 40% of a company board, and at least one of the senior board positions”, however, research conducted by Women on Boards finds that nearly 20% of FTSE 100 firms do not meet this criterion.
“The best boards consist of a diverse group of people who bring their own perspectives. This diversity should of course include a good gender mix.”
—Ian Joseph, Managing Director at Trustees Unlimited
There are so many benefits to having a diverse trustee board and facilitating women into these positions. The organisation, Rights of Women, who work in different ways to help women through the law, have an active recruitment process, meaning that they target the individuals they want on their board: “[They] are particularly interested in recruiting trustees from Black and minority communities including refugee and migrant women, disabled women and women who have personal experience of the issues that are core to [their] work.” In this case, having women at board-level is crucial to the organisation’s ability to fulfil its charitable mission and objectives due to the nature of its work advocating for and protecting the rights of women.
More broadly, having women in governance could affect a charity’s ability to secure donations from female philanthropists. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, “Many donors are increasingly uncomfortable supporting charities whose leadership teams or policy-making structures don’t adequately represent the groups they are trying to help. Women, particularly younger women, frequently choose to channel their funds towards organisations who have several female or Black and ethnic minority managers, if they are dealing with gender or minority issues.”
“We know that, taken as a whole, trustees do not reflect the make-up of the communities their charities serve. The average trustee is older to educated to degree level, and men outnumber women by two to one.”
– Helen Stephenson, Charity Commission, 2021
There is no doubt that women are making worthwhile contributions across the sector in governance roles, but the above research suggests that there is still room for improvement in this area. Additionally, as well as looking at the number of women occupying board positions, we also need to be asking questions about the kind of organisations that have diverse boards and those that don’t. Are there enough women on the boards of large grant-making Trusts and Foundations, for example? If not, why might that be the case?
With all of this in mind, here are some key points to consider for getting women on trustee boards:
- Onset encouragement: to encourage more women-led governance and leadership, it is crucial to demonstrate to women and girls that it is both possible and needed. Programmes can be created to develop skills in leadership. More awareness can be brought to the need for women in governance through workshops and campaigns. These can also be implemented in organisations to encourage women to progress and aim for these executive roles.
- Having difficult conversations: organisations need to be able to address structural and systemic barriers, through presentations and clear communication. There must be transparency concerning the statistics of men and women making up executive and board roles. Organisations should be encouraged to be vocal about this and to bring it to the forefront. Take a look at a good example of how the housing charity, Look Ahead, has done this by publishing its Diversity & Inclusion 2022/23 Report.
- Formal recruitment: The Charity Commission (2017) found that 71% of trustees are recruited through an informal process. To diversify and ensure more women are in governance and leadership roles, there should be better regulation with recruitment processes. Quoting Inclusive Boards, “With an over reliance on current trustees for the recruitment of new trustees it is no surprise that charities often struggle to identify diverse and skilled candidates”, which includes women. Better regulation could include short-listing of external candidates, ensuring vetting takes place and a formal set-up of pre-written interview questions, all approved by the trustee board.