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Closing the Gap on Female Leadership

    I 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 that 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. In contrast, more communal, relations-orientated and nurturing traits, traditionally associated with the feminine, are often a key component of leadership programmes, as indiccated in the Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness report.

    All of us are at our best when we are in balance and therefore, able to show up as our best selves. For this 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 become overwhelmed, and burnout. This can lead us to stop believing in ourselves and therefore, lose 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 is a compassionate response, just like we have for our beneficiaries.

    First, regarding self-belief, it was great to read that the ‘Missing Out’ report focused on the recommendation to provide mentoring, training and support. Whilst these interventions are helpful, I also consider that to build self-belief we need to introduce person-specific ‘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 workplace. Therefore 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 as an important part of looking after themselves.

    The second aspect is having a compassionate response to wellbeing which is 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. Also, that staff may take up to three paid non-consecutive days per annum for their personal wellbeing needs. All of this is underpinned by flexible working policies including an Employee Assistance Programme.

    Let me finish by agreeing with Carol Akiwumi, Chair of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee who 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 each individual team members’ self-belief, we will develop into the leaders that our beneficiaries need us to be.