< This article has been amended; see final paragraph
Two years ago, a meeting of the top representative bodies in the charity sector would have been a largely male-dominated affair.
Around the table at that time would have sat the likes of Acevo’s Sir Stephen Bubb, David Emerson of the Association of Charitable Foundations, Neil Cleeveley of Navca and John Barrett of the Small Charities Coalition.
Fast-forward two years and a quiet revolution has gone on at the top of the sector’s leading representative bodies.
The male chief executives of Acevo, Navca, the ACF and the SCC have all stepped aside and been replaced by female leaders: Vicky Browning, Jane Ide, Carol Mack and Mandy Johnson respectively.
They join long-serving leaders such as Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, Caron Bradshaw of the Charity Finance Group and Ros Oakley of the Association of Chairs.
More broadly, the chair of the Institute of Fundraising is a woman, and the chair and chief executive of the Charity Commission and the Minister for Civil Society are all women too.
At a time when both the private and public sectors face stern criticism for the lack of women in senior roles, the charity sector appears to be ahead of the game.
Carol Mack, chief executive of the ACF, says it feels "fantastic to be part of a sector that has appointed so many strong, dynamic women". She adds: "There have always been women leaders who have risen above the significant structural barriers." What is new is the sheer number of them, she says.
"It’s happening too slowly and it’s happening unevenly, but that’s something we can all build on and drive forwards."
Debra Allcock Tyler says it is a marked departure from 2001, when she became chief executive of the DSC. At that point she felt very isolated. "It wasn’t that the chaps were horrible to me," she says. "They were perfectly nice. It’s just that I didn’t feel included or that they understood where I was coming from."
Ros Oakley, the executive director of the AoC, has worked in the charity sector since the late 1980s. "One charity I worked at several decades ago said they didn’t think they would have a female leader in their lifetime," she says. "They have one now."
Jane Ide, chief executive of Navca, the membership body for local voluntary sector support organisations, worked in both the private and public sectors before joining Navca in 2016.
As a relative newcomer to the sector, she says there are "far fewer barriers" to a woman becoming a leader here.
"In other sectors, there really isn’t space for you at a senior level unless you fit a particular mould," she says. "One of the things I’ve found encouraging in the charity sector is meeting a whole range of women in leadership roles who come from a range of work backgrounds.
"If I were to talk to a young woman who wanted to be a chief executive, I’d say go into the charity sector."
In the past, national level infrastructure bodies have been accused of failing to
work together and putting personal rivalries before their missions.
I’d tell young women who wanted to be chief executives: go into the charity sectorJane Ide
Allcock Tyler says that when sector bodies come together now there is less "willy-waving", as she puts it, and more collaboration. The past year has seen joint calls for reforms to the lobbying act and to halt the appointment of Baroness Stowell as chair of the Charity Commission, and charities working closely to respond to the civil society strategy review.
This more collaborative approach is ultimately good for charity beneficiaries, Oakley says: "Many of the issues in people’s lives are complex and multi-stranded, and the more we can have a joined-up, collaborative approach, the better we will be."
The collaborative approach and the shift in gender balance has created support networks for individual leaders, Sue Tibballs says. She says that since she stepped up to lead the charity for campaigners, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, she’s felt "utterly supported by the women I’ve met. It’s fantastic to see all these women coming through, working collaboratively.
"In my previous job, in the sports sector, I would tend to be one of two women in the room, and that lack of balance feels wrong, uncomfortable," she says.
Oakley also feels that there has been a move away from "the heroic model of leadership" and the long-hours culture.
Caron Bradshaw has led the Charity Finance Group since 2010, having previously worked for the accountancy body the ICAEW. As the mother of four children, she says she has been very "lucky" because her husband does most of the childcare: "He hasn’t been in paid work in 19 years."
Her own experience has made her consider the CFG’s flexible working
arrangements. "The first person to take up flexible hours was a man," she says.
For me it’s about supporting each other, particularly junior colleaguesAmanda Bringans
"So I think it’s less about us being flexible towards mothers and more about acknowledging that people of all types, with children and those who are childless, all have different responsibilities.
"We have to look beyond this rhetoric of ‘women need to have childcare’."
Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, has held senior leadership roles in the charity sector since 2010. She says she’s been impressed by the new level of collaboration, but believes there’s a danger that female leaders can be viewed as simply "nice and supportive".
"Actually, what I’ve seen are really strong, strategic, intelligent women who know what they need to do and do it really well," she says.
They’re doing it in a way that "isn’t doing each other down" but is still effective, she adds.
Women make up 63 per cent of the charity workforce, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ UK Civil Society Almanac 2018.
However, they’re still scarce at the top of the biggest organisations. Third Sector’s diversity survey, compiled last year, found that just 32 per cent of chief executives at the top 100 charities by income were female, and women filled 47 per cent of other senior management roles.
‘Only the beginning’
Amanda Bringans, chair of the Institute of Fundraising and director of fundraising at the British Heart Foundation, says the recent increase in the number of senior female executives "is only the beginning".
"When 75 per cent of fundraisers are women, to have only 30 per cent of leaders being female is pretty appalling," she says. "But you’ve got to start somewhere, and for me it’s about supporting each other, particularly junior colleagues."
While there’s much to celebrate in the influx of female leaders to prominent sector bodies, the leaders are quick to point out that there is much work left to do.
"There are still too few people from BAME backgrounds, from working-class backgrounds, those with disabilities or people who are openly from the LGBTQ+ community at the top of the sector," says Bradshaw.
"And we can’t afford to rest on our laurels - we need to be representative of our beneficiaries and of our workforce.
"As a sector we need to be doing more to promote and celebrate these people who are already doing amazing work and could do even more on a bigger platform."
Progress is starting to be made on this issue. Last week, Acevo and the IoF launched a joint report Racial Diversity in the Charity Sector: Principles and Recruitment Practice. It called for charity leaders to make a series of commitments aimed at improving the racial diversity of their organisations, including signing up to binding minimum diversity targets and hiring for potential.
Browning says there’s been a lot of talk about improving racial diversity but change so far has been too slow, and so far no one is getting it right. "It requires a conscious, targeted investment of time and resource," she says.
Adeela Warley, chief executive of Charity Comms and one of the few prominent BAME figures at the top of the sector, says celebrating the progress made so far is the first step towards ensuring more widespread and lasting change.
Investment in mentoring and a sustained, collaborative effort to support and nurture talent from all backgrounds need to follow, she says.
"I think it’s going to be a work in progress," she says. "If we get this right there'll be a big pay-off for future generations."
< The lead photo on this article has been replaced with photos of all those quoted in the article and not just those present at a group photoshoot. Mandy Johnson of the Small Charities Coalition has asked for all images of her and quotes from her to be removed after the original lead image drew some criticism for its lack of diversity. Additional quotes have been added from Caron Bradshaw and Vicky Browning. These quotes highlight the concerns Johnson raised in the original version of the article about the broader lack of diversity in the charity sector.