Gender Equality In The Charity Sector. Is There Strength in Numbers?

9 minute read

“The temptation is to think of the voluntary sector as somehow better than the corporate world, but the truth of the matter is that there is nothing about a charity that automatically makes you good at promoting gender equality and diversity.” Sam Smethers, Chief Exec of the women’s equality charity, the Fawcett Society.

Issues of gender in the workplace have never been so topical.

One hundred years after women in the UK won the right to vote, we’re mired in discussions around how gender affects day-to-day life at work, as well as career development.

Hollywood and the entertainment sector grabbed the headlines first in 2017, with the Harvey Weinstein scandal unleashing a seismic shock to that industry that’s since been felt around the world, and across all employment sectors.

Equality and diversity, an end to sexual harassment at work, #MeToo and #Time’sUp. These were the subjects on everyone’s lips at this year’s Oscars, overshadowing red carpet gossip or even news of the winners.

And what’s emerged since then about sexual exploitation and sexual harassment in some parts of the charity sector. It beggars belief. Many of us who work for charities are in shock; we feel tainted by the behaviour of a small minority in a sector we’re proud to be part of.

Alongside these developments, there’s ongoing debate in the news about the gender pay gap across all employment sectors. Just this month it’s come out that ITN’s gender pay gap at 19.6% is almost double that of the BBC (revealed last year as 10.7%); Guardian News and Media’s figure of 11.3% has also been released alongside plans they’re taking to redress it.

Currently organisations with less than 250 people aren’t required to publish their gender pay gap but this may change. The NCVO recently chose to publish their figure and are calling on all voluntary organisations to do the same, regardless of size.

Our diversity surveys

It’s in this heated climate that we’ve decided to take a closer look at the diversity surveys we asked candidates and recruiters to complete in 2017. To take a cool-headed review of gender diversity in the charity sector as it’s experienced by people looking to move into the sector, or move within it. And to get a steer from our recruiters on how seriously they consider it as part of the recruitment process.

Strength in numbers

Our sector is female dominated.

Around two thirds of us working in charities and voluntary organisations are women.

Replies to our surveys reflected this demographic also: 70% of candidates who took part were women, with 1% identifying as transgender and the remainder men. For the recruiter survey, 83% of completed surveys were from women, and 15% were from men.

But first: the view from the top

The 2018 edition of ACEVO’s 2018 Pay and Equalities Survey had encouraging news about gender diversity at CEO level.

“I am pleased to see a high number of female respondents in this year’s survey alongside a significant reduction in the gender pay gap.” (Vicky Browning, Chief Executive of ACEVO, the body for charity leaders).

The Acevo Survey points to an increase in the number of women CEOs in the charity sector as well as some improvement in the gender pay gap.

Third Sector’s 2017 Diversity Survey also had tentative good news when it came to gender diversity in the sector at senior level. Three years on from their previous survey, it showed a stuttering but upward trend.

“In 2014, 44% of senior managers, not including chief executives, were female. That proportion has increased to 47% in the latest survey.

The proportion of female trustees has also risen, from 36% in 2014 to 40% this time around.”

Still, Third Sector found the situation at CEO level wasn’t improved among the fifty charities they surveyed, with “only 32 percent being female, a rise of two percentage points—or one person—on the 2014 figures.”

Does gender have an impact on your career?

In our candidate survey, pretty much the same number of candidates thought gender would have an impact on their career, as thought it wouldn’t (48% to 52%).

But of those, men were much less likely to think it’d have an impact than women: 27% compared to 56%. It seems safe to assume that’s a negative impact.

And when we then asked candidates if they’d ever felt discriminated against at work, 26% said they’d experienced gender discrimination – less than for age discrimination but a significant number nonetheless.

We asked if they could tell us more about this. Over 250 people did, taking the time to complete firsthand experiences of gender issues in the charity sector.

“Men are more likely to be given the management roles in an office. A male was given the job over me without any prior experience managing – and I had already managed the team and they did not make me team leader. I felt this was discrimination.”

“Senior positions are mostly filled by men. Very few under 50s employed.”

“Male trustee boards can treat you like “the little women”’.

“So hard to get into the “boys club” of senior levels. We don’t get the same mentoring and support opportunities.”

“I have been in organisations where men are promoted ahead of more qualified and experienced women. Men’s ability to talk themselves up is valued more than a woman’s proven ability to deliver.”

“Many senior managers are female. Most CEOs are male.”


What it’s like for men in the charity sector?

However—and it’s an important “however”— we also received many replies from men in non-senior roles (or who were job seekers) who felt that being a man could be a disadvantage in our female-dominated sector.

“I do believe that the charity sector, in particular, is weighted towards the recruitment of women and that the charity sector is becoming more female orientated. I do believe as well that women now have more career prospects even at the top level.”

“Borderline bullying: the organisation I work at has recruited a high number of young females, some of whom are terribly cliquey. I found it difficult to break through as a middle aged black male.”

“Almost a fully female organisation, they feel like they like to keep it that way.”

“One of only a few males and the only only non-managerial male. Subjected to an orchestrated litany of half truths, innuendo and lies formulated by one more senior female staff member.”

“Within a month of putting in a request for three months of Shared Parental Leave I was made redundant. The organisation admitted that they wouldn’t have made a woman on maternity leave redundant but felt free to make me redundant because I was a man.”

There’s an impression that men often don’t feel welcome or that they don’t “fit” in the charity sector when applying for—or employed in—non senior roles.

Are our candidates experiencing a gender pay gap?

First off, it’s key to bear in mind that over 70% of the candidates who replied to our survey are working in intermediate, middle or entry level level jobs. So, we’re not talking about the very top jobs here.

Based purely on our survey results, there’s no real difference in pay based on gender amongst the candidates who completed the survey.

There were, however, several accounts from women who— at some time in their career—had needed to argue for equal pay with male colleagues.

“Discovered male colleague on a higher salary. When challenged, the organisation did increase mine to the same level. This was 20 years ago, working in a national children’s charity.”

“As a woman I was being paid less than male colleagues. When I brought it to my employer’s attention, he tried very hard to find difference in our job roles to justify the difference in salary. There was no difference but they refused to accept that and gave me a small increase to shut me up – which it did. I was young and foolish at the time. If it happened to me today, I would not accept the increase as it didn’t bring my salary up to the level of my male colleagues plus I would not be bought off that easily.”

But looking at all of our candidates’ comments, it seems the gender pay gap for the sector overall is likely to be explained by the disproportionate number of men in leadership roles, rather than a significant difference in pay between genders in the non-leadership roles that are the focus of our survey results.

Family and caring responsibilities

So, why is there a disproportionate number of men in leadership roles earning the high salaries that exacerbate the gender pay gap for the sector overall?

There isn’t one single reason and it’s a complex issue. But if we look only at the experiences of the candidates who replied to our survey, it’s clear that many women feel that family and caring responsibilities fall largely to them and this has an impact on their career progression within the sector. It also means they’re often in part time roles which pay less and can allow less scope for career progression.

We had heaps and heaps of comments from women who felt that family and caring commitments meant their career (and salary) in the voluntary sector was held back.

“Consider better paid part time for experienced mums returning to work rather than salaries for college leavers.”

“I was part time after I had my children and they tried to make me redundant when there was another alternative.”

“The assumption that I will leave to have children or that my work will take second place to family issues.”

“Have to consider work life balance when you have children so work part time for less money but the same hours and effort.”

“Due to parenting and caring some women often end up needing part time, flexible hours so these are likely to be paid less despite their education and experience level.”

“Being a woman means being likely to have caring responsibilities or childcare responsibilities ultimately resulting in the need for a part time job. Part time jobs which pay a decent level to live on are extremely difficult to find and it shows that 99% of employers don’t think it is necessary to pay a part time employee a decent living wage compared to a full time employee.”

“As a woman of childbearing age I am more than well aware that this definitely impacts unpon my career potential.”

“Through taking maternity leave I have lost career progression opportunities, a big chunk of pension contributions and all of my savings. Whatever my role, I feel I will never earn the same as man doing my job, whether I keep working for a charity or not.”

This ties in with what the Fawcett Society—a group campaigning for equality—has found. That family/caring responsibilities are key to understanding the gender pay gap across all sectors:

“Women play a greater role in caring for children, as well as for sick or elderly relatives. As a result, more women work part time, and these jobs are typically lower paid with fewer progression opportunities.”

Gender plus age: the perfect storm

The number one cause of discrimination for candidates (who completed our survey) was age. This surprised us (see: our Age and Skills article). It came above gender and ethnic discrimination. What’s more, our survey results showed that being older AND a woman, was a double handicap when it came to getting a job in the sector, or moving up in your career.

It was clear from their comments that many older women candidates (over 40) feel discriminated against on account of both age and gender.

“Facing older woman syndrome.”

“At 52 I feel some companies see that as a woman you are past the age of being fit. In this day and age this is not the case.”

“I am 56, I have genuine hands-on experience, knowledge and skills, excellent references, recommendations, etc. Yet people fail to truly understand the full value and benefit that I can bring to the workplace. When applying for a job the goal used to invited for interview—now the goal is to keep your fingers crossed in the hope that the person “skimming”  through your CV is bring enough to recognise the worth of the experience detailed.”

So what about recruiters?

The majority of recruiters who replied to our survey are women (83%).

Ask them what comes to mind when you say “diversity” to them, and most reply ethnicity (79%), followed next by gender (30%).

Not one single recruiter replied that they had more men than women in their organisation, but when asked about the diversity of their charity, there were many mentions of a gender disparity at board level.

“Among our Board we have 55% men and 45 women, among our staff we have 75% women and 25% men.”

“In gender, roughly half and half; although only one quarter of our senior management team is female.”

So this marries with what the ACEVO Survey found. The gender gap at CEO level is improving slowly, but it’s clearly an issue still.


Our diversity surveys confirm that the charity sector is predominantly female, but that women candidates (and recruiters) are well aware of a disproportionate number of men in leadership roles.

At the same time, many men who are looking for (or in) non-senior roles, don’t feel welcome in the charity sector because of the number of women working in it, relative to men.

As far as our women candidates are concerned, it seems it’s not equal pay for equal work that’s the problem so much as career progression—and a lack of representation in leadership/senior management roles. Their comments point strongly towards an argument that women’s careers and salaries are stalled because of the burden of family and caring responsibilities.  Requirements for flexible working and part time hours are hampering their ability to progress according to merit and effort.

Much of this is common to all sectors right now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lead the way here. Perhaps it’s time for us to look properly at how we can improve prospects for people who need to work flexibly (or part time) so that we can make the most of the talented, experienced workforce that’s attracted to our sector.

And we need to be more inclusive – recognising that a better gender mix at all levels is a fairer representation of society that produces a healthier working environment, less vulnerable to accusations of cliques and bullying.



ACEVO 2018 Pay and Equalities Survey

Third Sector Diversity Survey 2017


Fawcett Society

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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