How to embrace gender diversity in the third sector

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Third Sector Jobs spoke to WaterAid and The WISH Centre about how they're successfully achieving gender diversity in their workplaces.

To represent beneficiaries across the board, whatever their gender or ethnicity, it is increasingly important that decisions are made by groups of diverse leaders that are equally balanced on gender, eradicating a culture of groupthink and unconscious bias. Third Sector Jobs spoke to two charities to find out how they have adopted incremental changes with far-reaching benefits.

Leadership from the top

WaterAid is an international non-profit organisation that was set up in 1981 as a response to the UN international drinking water and sanitation decade. With women and girls being disproportionately impacted by a lack of clean water and decent toilets, the organisation felt it was fitting that the workforce in the charity should also support its own female employees and champion gender diversity throughout the organisation.

Fiona Lavery, head of UK people management at WaterAid, which has been recognised as one of the UK’s Best Workplaces™ for women in the ranking published by Great Place to Work®, says that the example is set from the top: "There is a strong female representation at WaterAid. It’s a federated structure at the charity with seven global member countries, and five of our chief executives are women."

On WaterAid’s UK board, six women and five men take their places, with women making up 67% of UK director positions. Tim Wainwright, chief executive for the charity feels so strongly on this point that he took a pledge not to serve on an external panel where there are two people unless at least one is a woman.

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Similarly, London based charity, The WISH Centre, which works to prevent self-harm, abuse and exploitation of young people, felt that it needed to mirror within its staff team the experiences and diverse backgrounds of the beneficiaries that it tirelessly works to serve. Clare Kiely, chair of The WISH Centre, and senior investment partner at Comic Relief, explains: "The diversity of gender we have at the charity is borne out of the need for young people to connect with us. There is a strong female leadership here and for a long time it has been female focused to represent the needs of young women who were self-harming and historically made up most of our beneficiaries.

"We are now mindful of it not being solely about females and we are working to ensure The WISH Centre is also representative of other equality groups including men and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+ communities).

Living the values

Lavery agrees that at the root of this strive for outstanding gender diversity is the aims of the charity. Women are at the heart of everything that the non-profit organisation does. At the centre of this aim is re-addressing the balance in the developing world for the burden to always be upon women and girls to collect water and be unduly exposed to dirty water and poor sanitation.

Speaking about the charity’s ranking as one of the UK’s best workplaces for women, Margaret Batty, director of global policy and campaigns said: "At WaterAid, we believe women are crucial to driving change and we are proud to champion equality and invest in women’s leadership and empowerment – from community-based groups where we work, to our offices around the world."

Women in the external environment are also celebrated at WaterAid. Not only is International Women’s Day celebrated annually but career stories of women are also shared.

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"This is achieved via a webinar, so it is a global event, and everyone can access these talks," says Lavery who adds that notable take-aways from these sessions are some of the messages that come across. "They are quite powerful including, ‘do not trade femininity’ and ‘rock being a woman’ as well as ‘leadership is not like acting being a man!’

At The WISH Centre, the charity has worked hard to ensure the board represents the young people it works to help by ensuring that its decisions are connected to the realities of the experiences of those that self-harm. "We have a good gender mix now and we also have younger ex-service users on the board. Our chief executive is female, and our head therapist is a man. It’s important that we are representative of the people that come to us because it makes our support and services far more effective and accessible to young people that need us."

Championing flexible working

Both charities champion flexible working to ensure that staff can achieve a greater work-life balance.

Lavery says: "We recognise that it is fundamental to balance work and home, so we offer core hours of 10am to 4pm but we also offer flexibility around that.

"We offer remote working and all our managers are very approachable and understanding. Generally, we say that most agreements can be managed informally with a good conversation with a line manager to avoid people feeling they have to put formal requests in all the time."

The charity seeks to be supportive to everyone, 95% of women at WaterAid say they are treated fairly, regardless of their gender.

Batty says: "We trust our staff to do their jobs and we aim to create an environment that enables people to work around their other responsibilities outside of work, demonstrated by 87% of women agreeing they are encouraged to balance their work and personal life, and 93% stating that they are able to take time off from work when necessary."

At The WISH Centre, working hours are also flexible and there is a range of full and part-time positions available. "We also have evening working which we know is important because it’s often the only time young people have to contact us and come in for support that fits around their school, college or work commitments this also benefits staff who may not be available during traditional working hours," says Kiely.

Flexible working for men too

Changing cultural perceptions that flexible working is not just the remit of working women is a harder challenge, yet WaterAid is making great strides towards this by profiling those men that are currently doing it.

"We are now working in partnership with TimeWise, the recruitment website advertising, part-time and flexible working roles to review our flexible working practices even further", explains Lavery. "We have started to advertise more jobs as part-time or ‘open to flexibility’ and we have had a great response. We recently recruited a man into a part-time role – he is delighted because he splits his childcare equally.

"We also want to use our internal intranet and other internal platforms to showcase that men as well as women are able to work flexibly."

Normalising gender diversity

The most important element of the gender diversity programme is that it is ‘normalised’, and overtime is becoming part of the DNA of charities.

"It’s not a taboo to work flexibly or request time off", says Lavery. "Our chief executive had to leave a leadership programme recently because his child was ill. No one thought badly of this."

Engagement levels at both charities are in turn very high. "Our last global employee survey showed that engagement for WaterAid UK is 89%, with 93% of staff saying they are proud to work for us, which is fantastic. This is also down to the fact that part-time and flexible working is for men and women and includes senior roles too. We took on a very accomplished and experienced lady recently, part-time, and she said she was so excited to see the job advertised because everything else that had been part time had been at a very junior level," explains Lavery.

The WISH Centre recently recruited a professional for its therapeutic services that has experience of working in LGBTQ+ organisations. "This was appealing to us as we want to reach out to those LGBTQ+ young people who may not think about approaching us for support. Having someone with knowledge and experience of their unique needs ensures we can provide the best possible help."

WaterAid has also done a lot of work to create a working environment that provides support when needed: "In the UK we have an employee assistance programme that enables any of our employees to talk to someone if they have any concern at all, whether that is financial, health related or of another personal nature. During mental health awareness week in May we ran sessions on mindfulness and financial wellbeing," adds Lavery.

Normalising greater gender diversity and making it part of the fabric and very essence of charities has been a longer term challenge but by sharing stories and showcasing men and women that are proud of the work/life balance they have achieved, it is fast becoming part of a culture where women and men are celebrated whatever their job, the hours they work and however visible they are in the office.

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