We Need More Women Leaders in Civil Society

"FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders" collected data for the first time on women`s representation in CSO leadership and asked organisations to commit to achieve fair representation by 2030.

von Helene Wolf, June 23, 2019
Business Women

I spent the last eight years working very closely with large international civil society organisations (CSOs) and their top leadership. As I was working for a small organisation where I had the strong support and mentorship of the Director, I had the unusual opportunity to take on a leadership position very early in my professional career and while starting my family. In most Board meetings I was definitely the youngest person but also always part of the minority of women in the room. When I started to consider potential next career steps it felt like I had two options: First, join a system clearly designed by and around middle-aged men which seemed to me hierarchical, bureaucratic and slow but, most importantly, not fit to tackle the challenges CSOs have to tackle such as inequality, climate change or poverty. Second, drop out of the sector and seek a career someplace else that would offer the opportunities for growth, creative leeway and impact I was eager to have. As both options did not excite me at all I developed a third option, I co-founded FAIR SHARE to make sure there will be better chances for women to become leaders in CSOs.

Most CSOs include gender issues int their programming and advocacy – yet most of them don’t live up to gender parity within their own organisations. Based on the first FAIR SHARE Monitor we researched and published this year, we now know that most CSOs have a significant gap of women leaders in comparison to the number of women on their staff.

Out of 28 international CSOs we list in the Monitor at the moment, only 12 are led by a woman. Only 11 organisations have at least 50% women on their Senior Management Teams; when looking at Boards the number goes down to 9. This stands in strong contradiction to the fact that most organisations have a majority of women on their workforce.

This is data for the international structure of CSOs like Oxfam, Amnesty International or Plan International. We are currently looking into the national affiliates and the first set of statistics we received from CARE International suggest a similar picture: CARE Germany has 53% of women on their staff but only 38% women in top leadership positions; CARE UK has 75% of women staff and 53% women leaders.

This means that in these organisations talented women are less likely to take on top management or governance positions than talented men. Our Monitor does not offer any answers on the causes or potential ways to change this inequality. The good news: 11 major CSOs have signed a commitment to achieve a FAIR SHARE of women leaders by 2030. We will now work with them and their staff to develop strategies and programmes to significantly increase the number of women in top positions.

I am convinced that this objective can only be reached by a change in culture, policies and leadership styles. The concept of feminist leadership which is based on participation, inclusivity, intersectionality and cooperation offers a visionary way forward to transform CSOs towards a different understanding of their internal management and as well as their external role. Next to monitoring progress (hopefully) on the number of women in leadership positions we want to explore the principles and practices of feminist leadership and how to apply them in CSOs –and to our own organisation. It could potentially break down some of the internal and external power imbalances that coin today’s CSOs and shift the power to women and other underrepresented groups who are currently part of the system but systematically discriminated and overlooked. And it includes men – because next to women leaders we need feminist men who work alongside women to transform CSOs towards more credible and more impactful actors.

So what’s next and how to get involved?

We are a growing group of volunteers and welcome any support we can get – volunteer or financial support, mobilising women within CSOs and convincing more organisations to join the FAIR SHARE pledge. Write us at hello@fairsharewl.org and become part of the FAIR SHARE movement.

Helene Wolf is the Chair and Co-Founder of FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders e.V. Before starting FAIR SHARE she served as Deputy Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre for eight years. She has two sons and lives in Berlin.