Jo Wolfe: The sector must wake up to its diversity problem

The digital lead at Breast Cancer Care encourages everyone to take a stand for diversity

Jo Wolfe
Jo Wolfe

Amid the April Fools social media silliness last week, the Women’s Equality Party encouraged us to share stats and stories about gender inequality in the UK via #NotAnAprilFools. Much of the content was shocking, not least this tweet by @CharityWomen: "68 per cent of the charity workforce is female, but only 43 per cent of charities are led by women #NotAnAprilFools."

The accompanying chart showed female leadership falls to 27 per cent in charities with annual turnovers of £10m or more.

This tweet made me angry – the effort of some incredible women is one of the things that makes our sector great. More importantly, it made me reflect on the diversity challenges our sector faces. As a white, middle-class woman, I’m coming to this issue from a certain perspective, but it’s an issue that needs to be talked about by everyone with a platform to do so. Diversity is lacking on charity boards, in senior leadership and within our staff teams overall. There are issues with recruitment and retention of staff that span from informal internships all the way to the boardroom and cover areas of diversity including race, disability, sexuality and gender. Put simply, the UK charity sector is far too pale and male.

In February, I had the privilege of leading the UK delegation to the Community Core Leaders Development Programme at the invitation of the Japanese Cabinet Office. There, we joined peers from Finland, Germany and Japan to explore ways to develop the charity sectors in our respective countries. One of the most prominent topics was diversity.

The irony of discussing charity sector diversity in one of the most homogeneous societies in the world was not lost on us. Looking around the room I saw different nationalities, multiple ethnicities, people for whom English was their second (or third) language, others who had visible disabilities (and more with invisible ones), people from different class backgrounds and a variety of sexual orientations. It was easily the most diverse group of people that I have had the opportunity to work with.

Was it difficult to discuss complex topics with such a mixed team of colleagues? Sometimes. Did we struggle to find a shared way of working in our early sessions? Absolutely. But was it ultimately richer to find a new way to work together rather than encouraging the "minority" to work the same way as the "majority"? A million times, yes.

Countless studies have shown us that diverse teams make better decisions and non-diverse teams fail more frequently. I’ve found this in my time managing both digital and cross-functional project teams. A recent project to develop personas for our customer journey nearly faltered because the team working on them wasn’t diverse enough. Most crucially, a diverse workforce makes us closer to the wide-range of beneficiaries we seek to help.

Recently, an incredibly talented friend working in digital at a large national charity told me she looked around and saw there were no people of colour in senior positions. As someone who is non-white, she felt this sent a clear message that she couldn’t progress. Despite our talk of values, we are failing staff if we allow this to continue. We all need to wake up to our sector’s diversity problem.

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