NGOs Help Women Everywhere, Except In Their Own Boardrooms


Despite the fact that they make up a huge percentage of the sector's workforce, women are rarely in charge of most major Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Women's representation in executive positions is, of course, low across all industries. But according to recent reports, the figure is particularly low in the NGO sector, where women head just 12% of major NGOs in the United States.

The reasons why women appear to be struggling to rise to the highest positions are, of course, difficult to measure. Some claim the particularly travel-heavy schedules of NGO leaders are hard to balance with family, while others insist there are significant roadblocks based on gender bias in the field. But, no matter the cause, the low figures in gender representation are surprising given the nature of the industry, and merit serious consideration.

Women fill an estimated 70% of nonprofit staff positions in the United States. While some have risen to take charge of a number of important organizations, their representation in leadership roles is low across the board. The issue is the same globally. Women run just 27% of NGOs in the UK, despite holding a significant number of administrative and support roles. Of the most influential and highly funded group of British aid organizations (known collectively as the British Overseas Aid Group), only one is run by a woman.  While the figures are difficult to measure in other regions, women working in Kenya and South Africa have estimated that women run only around 10-15% of NGOs in their countries.

These figures are, of course, in line with some of the figures in other sectors. Last year, women held only 14.3% of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies (a quarter of which had no women in these roles at all). 

But what makes the figures in the NGO sector particularly remarkable is the fact that the industry has focused so heavily on promoting gender equality and women's empowerment. The World Bank, for example, has worked tirelessly on promoting its "gender equality for development" initiatives. The Council on Foreign Relations has consistently reported on a proven link between women's empowerment and economic progress. Most of the major international NGOs, such as Oxfam, MercyCorps, and Care, have incorporated women's empowerment programs as a key element of their missions, despite being led by men.

Joanna Kerr, executive director of ActionAid International and former executive director of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, told writers at the Guardian that part of the problem was the nature of the job. She cites having travelled for up to 65% of the time as a leader of development organizations, explaining that this can be hard for women to balance with family.

But Kerr claims that on top of these challenges that can exist in balancing family, there remains some bias in the industry making it difficult for women to rise up in most organizations. Women "are not necessarily perceived as leaders in their own organizations," she lamented, saying, "What I have tried to build as co-creative leadership has been billed as weak or indecisive. And when I am decisive it is perceived as too aggressive or challenging."

Still, Loretta Minghella, director of ChristianAid, said that although she faced roadblocks climbing up in her organization, they were not unlike those she encountered when working in finance and as a lawyer. "I'm not sure that the barriers for women's leadership in the NGO sector generally are that different from those in other sectors," she said, "which is a bit disappointing."

Whatever the root of the issue, it is surprising to see so few women in executive positions in an industry that has become so focused on working to promote gender empowerment globally. The fact that the figure is so low inside the United States is particularly alarming. The gender issue, it seems clear, deserves continued consideration in the organizations' work around the world, but also inside their boardrooms and offices.