“Inclusion is An Active Word”: Working Towards More Equal Leadership in NGOs

A few weeks ago, the Fair Share of Women Leaders Forum met to set out the campaign’s strategic plans. When asked to write a blog, I thought back on my career in the human rights and humanitarian sector. I had the fortune of working with some outstanding leaders that navigated complex sociopolitical country contexts and diverse and multicultural teams. Worryingly, I saw very few women in leadership roles despite many women building careers in civil society organisations (CSOs).  

A common misconception, which is further entrenched in hiring bias, is that women are less able to deal with the multifaceted demands of leadership roles and the pressures that accompany them. Despite women proving otherwise, change remains slow. It is clear that unconscious bias, discrimination and the status quo were and remain the key reasons men are given leadership opportunities, despite our equal credentials. 

Moving Away from “Traditional” Leadership Styles 

As a diversity and inclusion adviser, I do not speak of exclusively male and female leadership as better, worse or oppositional. Simplification can easily become stereotypes. Instead, a leadership style characterizes how one achieves objectives and goals, relates to others and grows teams. Of the many women leaders I encountered, being a woman did not guarantee diversity, inclusion and servant leadership.  

Leadership training courses focus on dealing with pressure, delegating effectively and organising work goals. Promoting inclusive leadership anchors ethics and integrity whilst ensuring transparency and accountability throughout all of these processes.  

We need to support emerging women leaders through structured mentoring and training, affirming that they need not to emulate certain traditional leadership styles to obtain roles and keep them. Traditional leadership is often characterized by overconfidence, narcissistic tendencies and an ability to stand above others. Time and time again, however, we see that this leadership style is counter-effective. Fear-based relationships are not conducive to innovation nor do they uphold the duty of caring for one’s team. Emotional intelligence is a key trait in good leaders but more leadership development is required to make a team feel safe and free to work beyond established limits. 

Shifting Organisational Culture 

This also involves adjustment in organisational culture, where we should promote uniqueness and inclusivity in work practices, collaboration and talent development. We are told diverse teams outperform competitors, but we forget leadership is key in this performance. Inclusion in the workplace means considering all who are qualified for the role based on merit and potential. There is nothing more inspiring than potential.  

Time for Change 

The large barrage of complaints filed from many international organisations around the world speaks to the fact that reputation is established through behavior. This requires our vigilance in our own leadership. Having worked in several ICSOs there are a few common ailments that remain – management is not inclusive in strategic planning, management is predominantly composed of men, and management makes crucial decisions without expertise, diversity or consultation. I have spent a great deal of time reporting to management and can say many failed to actively deliberate on the promotion of gender equality, cultural diversity or women leadership despite promoting a gender-focussed program. Quite a double standard. I was surprised to see how women leaders that had been hired were used as a safe bet for consensus, to tow the line or keep the cultural status quo.  

It is time for change. Feminist leadership is often perceived as a shift in power, but that depends on what we believe power is – if power means guiding and empowering others, then the shift is welcome.  There has to be space for cultivating a leadership that promotes expertise, engagement, mentoring, respect and equality.  This creates a safe space, upon which we can increase productivity, communication and innovation. Inclusive leaders embrace diversity and inclusion as a mindset and a call to action.  

Towards a FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders 

As an adviser and trainer, I position feminist leadership within organizational development and unbiased hiring strategy. It then becomes easier to identify the opportunities for promotion and shape ways to effectively utilize these opportunities. Inclusion is an active word – it’s not just about belonging but a way of leading that serves both the people with and for whom we work. Most importantly, promoting women in leadership enables women to achieve their FAIR SHARE. 

We Need More Women Leaders in Civil Society

Developing a better way to assess a FAIR SHARE of women leaders