GenderAugust 02, 2018

The development sector glass ceiling

Women face a number of barriers in reaching leadership both structurally, as well as internally within organisations; and an uneven playing field is among the top challenges.
2019-05-21 00:00:00 India Development Review The development sector glass ceiling
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In the early 2000s, the ‘indigenisation’ of international NGOs (INGOs) began to take root. This was an initiative on the part of these organisations to start including people from the global south in their leadership—global south being a more politically correct term for ‘developing’ nations.

The rationale was to create a work culture that would have representation from a broader part of the world, while also building local legitimacy in the developing countries that they were working in.

To start with, INGO indigenisation focused significantly on representation in leadership; and these organisations experienced an increase in the population of men from the global south—definitely a step in the right direction for widening representation.

This development though, quite unfortunately, also seemed to reinforce the ground reality in the geographies that these organisations worked in. The growing visibility of this group of ‘southern males’ not only heightened but also reinforced local realities, thereby perpetuating the gender disparity they were there to change.

If there were breakout sparks they were few and far between at the international level—and that too of women in senior leadership positions from the global north (the ‘developed’ world): Barbara Stocking (Executive Director, Oxfam); Joanna Kerr (ED, ActionAid); Loretta Minghella, (ED, Christian Aid); Bunny McDiarmid and Jennifer Morgan (Co-EDs, Greenpeace International).

Women head only 12-14 percent of the non-profits with the largest budgets in the US.

Women head only 12-14 percent of the non-profits with the largest budgets in the US and 24 percent of the top 100 nonprofits in the UK. Of the UK’s top development nonprofits—Action Aid, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children UK—collectively known as the British Overseas Aid Group, just two are headed by women, today.

Over time, in the ‘wider representation drive’, we seem to have cemented ourselves to this new reality of ‘indigenised skewedness’.

The Revolving Door

One of the more visible symptoms that seems to have evolved from this indigenised skewedness across international and national leadership positions, is a ‘revolving door’ situation, where the southern male seems to be organisation hopping—from one leadership position to next.

The convenience of taking someone in who has the credentials and experience is clear, but possibly not quite acceptable, given the emphasis that most of these organisations place on gender balanced leadership.

The skewedness towards appointing male leaders reveals a bias.

The skewedness towards appointing male leaders reveals a bias, which systemically takes root and reinforces itself; this then creates the ideal conditions for a revolving door, where the accumulated credentials and experience furthers the respective individual’s career path by way of organisation hopping.

So, while the staff is largely female, the highest rung in many of the organisations is still dominated by men, with little signs of letting up. Despite some organisations’ aims to hire women leaders, systems don’t seem to be in place to turn intentions into reality.


“One gender has systematically benefited more, and even at the cost of the other.” | Photo courtesy: Pixabay

“The biggest barrier to women advancing into these positions is the internal process and belief system,” according to Barbara Stocking. There are a number of barriers that women face in reaching leadership both structurally and internally. An uneven playing field is among the top challenges. “There is this prime assumption that the men who are leading these organisations are really good. They’re not…some are pretty mediocre. At the moment women are having to be very, very good to get to the top,” indicates Stocking.

Women in the development sector mirror the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields.

If it’s not the nonprofit world that can show the way, I can’t imagine which sector can. Gender empowerment has been championed in the context of overall development for decades, however, women professionals in the development sector mirror the challenges faced by women working in male-dominated fields.

Loretta Minghella, director at Christian Aid and a lawyer formerly working in the financial sector, reflects, “I’m not sure the barriers for women’s leadership in the nonprofit sector generally are that different from those in other sectors, which is a bit disappointing.”

It is interesting to see how the ground seems to be squirming beneath our feet crying out for a different reality. Here I draw the reader’s attention to the #MeToo campaign. The campaign is a reaction to this persistent and resistant systemic male bias, where one gender has systematically benefited more, and even at the cost of the other.

I invite the nonprofit community to see #MeToo not only as a distant ‘Weinstein episode’ but also a sign of an eruption closer to home. The reactive energy in such campaigns stems from a certain kind of male-centric organisational culture and the day-to-day reality that organisations have managed and sustained. One needs to ask—what is the gender dynamic playing out among our own nonprofits?

Related article: Why we aren’t closing the gender gap at work

Time to change, time to act

Change often comes from a combination of imbibing a new courage and a new imagination. In the present environment of deep-seated, deep conservatism, both are urgently required, and appallingly in short supply. We need to ask whether and how organisations that identify themselves as representing the interests of civil society are equipped to help reverse this extreme situation from deepening.

Here are a few on my checklist that I believe need addressing: the composition of boards and their agendas, the objectives of organisational development of each of these organisations, and the level of funding offered by grantmakers towards making strategic investments in gender-responsive organisational building.

Boards of NGOs need to muster a renewed and concerted drive both individually and collectively to respond to the illiberal wave that has gripped our world. Organisations must propel themselves into understanding the new reality and engage with it, rather than cowering away; they must challenge the prevailing resistance to actively seeking women leaders.

Women in leadership, moreover, cannot not be seen only as ‘women in leadership’, but as symbolising a shift to a much-needed progressive track. Otherwise we can be rest assured that that revolving door will continue to revolve. And will continue to revolve at odds with what is the need of the hour.

I believe, courage and imagination also seems to be getting stunted by the uncertainty that the present regime in India imposes (though the ‘wave’ seems to be a global one too). In this scenario, agendas like stepping up on women in leadership does seem to be taking a back seat. I’d also argue that the current regime even allows for the organisations own breed of conservatism to persist, which possibly could exclude the ‘women in leadership’ agenda.

In the world out there though, the lines of acceptability are being pushed. What is critical is how we view this as a jiu-jitsu moment—using the energy of the opposing force to make positive change happen. This positive change is vital even to ensure civil society organisations don’t make themselves irrelevant.

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