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Women, leadership, and intersectionality

Our CEO Joy Warmington recently wrote an article for a special edition of IPPR's Progressive Review. The article was on why we can't promote gender equality without addressing racial inequality. This is a modified version of the final article. The final piece can be accessed here.


Someone recently told me they thought I’d been very successful, a role model in fact. I replied that I didn’t see anything noteworthy about being a black, female CEO of an equalities charity. If anything, it actually fulfils a stereotype. On further reflection, though, I’m beginning to think that being a female, black leader in the charity sector is more unusual than I first thought.

The charity sector has seen a revolution in its leadership over the last few years. The male executives of bodies like AVECO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations), NAVA (the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action), ACF (the Association of Charitable Foundations), and the Charity Commission have all been replaced by women – AVECO, NAVA, and ACF have the double whammy of female CEOs and female chairs.

But Black and minority ethnic (BME) leadership – and female BME leadership in particular – is still lacking. Despite some notable exceptions, women leaders in the charity sector still tend to be white. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations’ annual survey, for example, reviewed 476 charity chief executives and found only 3% were BME (despite BME people comprising 13% of the population at large).

Why is this? The reasons are of course complex, but I think our approach to improving female representation in leadership positions provides some of the answers.

Some countries – such as Norway and Iceland – have taken an interventionist approach, with the government directly mandating how many women should be on the boards of larger companies. Other countries – such as America – have a more hands-off philosophy, relying on organisations themselves to lead on this agenda. In contrast, the UK has taken a mixed approach: the government and other regulators have shied away from introducing quotas, and instead outlined voluntary targets organisations should aim to meet. To support this process, government and other bodies have then showcased good practice or recommended interventions that supposedly work in increasing gender diversity. Common interventions include introducing flexible working practices, providing mentoring and coaching programmes, and using executive search agencies and head hunters.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it assumes the challenges facing women of colour are the same as those facing White British women. That’s why the targets are silent on the ethnicity of the people being recruited: there is an assumption BME women will be recruited in the same proportion as they’re represented in the sector in question. Coupled with this is an assumption that interventions to improve women’s access to leadership positions will be implemented equitably regardless of the recipient’s ethnicity. This, however, doesn’t take into account either bias in the delivery of interventions or the wider organisational culture BME women work in.

To take one example: I recently reviewed the use of executive search agencies and head hunters in the NHS and found that an ethnicity-blind approach won’t increase the representation of women of colour in senior positions. For a start, organisations are unsure of the legalities around asking for a diverse list of candidates and search agencies are reluctant to proffer this information. Then, when considering applicants, agencies are often looking at a very narrow pool. While BME staff are well-represented in lower grades, the number of BME people (and BME women in particular) in senior roles in the NHS is close to a national scandal. Coupled with this, recruitment agencies are often attracted to identifying and suggesting ‘high-fliers’ – candidates whose career history shows a rapid rise through the ranks in a neat, linear fashion. The experience of BME staff, however, is often the complete opposite: they find their careers stall, they are forced to make sideways moves, or they transfer from sector to sector to find more senior positions. The risk-averse nature of most organisations means few are prepared to take a chance and hire a creative, talented person who may need some development over a safe candidate who can ‘hit the ground running’.

The combination of these factors means we often see the same names and faces being recycled by recruitment agencies. In fact, a review of board composition in Norway after quotas laws had been introduced showed it was the same group of well-established, senior women who were being recruited to different organisations. So while companies were ostensibly meeting their target of 40% gender representation, it was the same women being appointed. It’s important to note the women in question were effective and competent leaders. Nevertheless, as the researchers pointed out, the old boys’ network was simply widened to become a different type of exclusive and exclusionary club.

This is important as it gets to the heart of the issue facing women of colour as they try to access – and, crucially, maintain – leadership positions. It is well understood that women leave the labour market at a much higher rate than men and some of the reasons for this are well established: critical factors include lack of access to flexible working arrangements, difficulties in achieving work-life balance, and disillusionment at a lack of career progression, for example.[1] What is often missing from this analysis, however, is the consideration of women’s experience: that vague yet real sense BME women have of not fitting in, of not being valued, of not being listened to, of being seen as a trouble maker at worst and a mere observer at best.

Simply put, when BME women access positions of power they are often the only person around the table who is ‘different’. Different not just in terms of ethnicity, but different in terms of social networks, educational attainment, socioeconomic background, and culture. Our work with organisations suggests that, because of the different paths that have brought them to the table, BME women can also often have different perspectives of an organisation and therefore different priorities for it too. This can clash with an existing boardroom culture, forcing people to either conform or feel excluded.

Back in the early 1990s, Patricia Hill Collins described how Black female community leaders usually had to position themselves as ‘the outsider-within’, using their roles and experiences to stimulate change rather than try and fit into the existing system.[2] To say the same still happens today would be an understatement – but with one crucial difference. Today, the language, codes, behaviours, and means by which people are made to feel excluded are less obvious. Having outlawed the tools of direct discrimination, BME women are now faced with the subtle indifference of microaggressions and cultural sleights. Just as an example, one female BME colleague I spoke to recently described her experience of being on the board of a large organisation in this way: “I found it challenging to contribute – not so much at the board table, but outside of the board. It was made very clear that I didn’t belong. I didn’t know the people they talked about and the networks that others associated with. At first I didn’t mind, but then I realised that knowing this other stuff was part of what made you credible in their eyes”.

It is important to note that this isn’t just an issue of social or cultural capital. The issue gets to the heart of what we expect a leader to be. In their review of leadership in the social sector, Clore Social Leadership argue that the public perception of leadership remains associated with status and hierarchy. “The image of a heroic leader, often associated with masculinity, circulates powerfully, reinforcing a sense that leadership and leadership development are elitist and only for certain people," it says. This is borne out by a range of additional research showing female leaders face the need to be both ‘warm and nice’ (what we traditionally expect of women) and ‘competent and tough’ (what we traditionally expect of leaders). Because these qualities are usually seen as opposites, balancing them is sometimes called the double bind of female leadership.

In their review of how women cope with this double bind, Wei Zheng, Ronit Kark, and Alyson Meister identified four strategies female leaders employ. However, because of the different stereotypes Black, Asian, and Chinese women face, not all these strategies are available to them in the same way as they are to White British women. For example, one strategy Zheng and her colleagues outline is being both authoritative and participative – asserting one’s capabilities whilst being quick to acknowledge weaknesses and mistakes. The problem with this tactic is that Black women face a particular stereotype around being threatening. As a result, many have learnt not to assert their authority or challenge decisions in the meeting room precisely so they do not appear overbearing. Another common strategy is to be both ‘demanding yet caring’ – to insist on high performance but at the same time check in with staff about their emotional wellbeing. Again, though, concerns around being perceived as aggressive or ‘uppity’ can prevent many Black women from sending emails reinforcing deadlines or having conversations to insist on better performance. This isn’t just borne out by our work, but by international case studies too.

At the moment, too many of our responses to the lack of female leadership are colour blind and unresponsive to intersectional challenges. There is a danger that if we progress with our current approach we will achieve gender diversity, but only for women of a particular ethnicity, class, and management approach. Our response needs to focus on five key issues.

First, we have to ensue there is a pipeline of talent coming through. In many ways this is the hardest and most complex issue to tackle as it requires organisations to transform their culture to ensure BME women are able to progress through the ranks and take on leadership positions. We haven’t cracked this yet, although there is a growing evidence base of what works (for an example see this).

Secondly, BME women need to be part of organisations that are inclusive – organisations where they don’t have to pretend to be anything else than who they are. It makes such a difference being able to bring yourself to work and not to be held to invisible standards of performance. It makes a difference working with people who respect your talent, instead of believing that you are the ‘token’ that managed to slip through the net.

Thirdly, we need to ensure senior leaders in all sectors (including my own voluntary sector) have the skills to accommodate and make the best use of diversity. This means they need to understand how bias can play a role in their decision-making. They need to be confident handling (and, in fact, welcoming) conflict. The ‘yes’ people might make us feel good about our leadership – but to welcome diversity means that we need the skills to welcome different views and ultimately doing things differently. Leaders need to be able to interrogate their social networks and understand how connections are made and forged.

Fourthly, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that the experiences of white women are the same as those who are from BME groups. Many organisations assume that they no longer have to address racism, because they have combated feminism and have the person in role to prove it. This isn’t a competition between ‘isms’ but it is often framed as such because organisations are slow to recognise the intersections between gender, race and class. And they need to understand what anti-racist practice looks like in a modern workforce. (There are some examples of how to do this here.)

Finally, shifting power won’t happen unless those with power do the shifting. Senior leaders to get out of their comfort zones. Surrounding ourselves with likeminded people creates a sense of security and a feeling of high performance. But although there is evidence this an illusion and in fact diverse teams are more evidence-based, innovative, and effective,[3] I’m not sure that this is evidence that we are prepared to act upon. It’s a challenge, but leaders have to go beyond the temptation to surround themselves with people who think, look, and act like them. Putting in place ‘weak’ strategies to improve matters, and not recognising and acting on their own beliefs, their own networks, and their own decision making frameworks often divorces leaders from the very thing they can take accountability for - change.

[1] Ioannidis C and Walther N (2010) Your Loss: How to win back your female talent, Aquitude Press

[2] Collins, Patricia Hill (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge Classics)

[3] See, for example, Sommers, Samuel R (2006) ‘On racial diversity and group decision making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 90(4); Phillips, KW, Liljenquist, K, and Neale, MA (2009) ‘Is the pain worth the gain? The advantages and liabilities of agreeing with socially distinct newcomers’ in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35; and Ann Hewlett, S, Marshall, M, and Sherbin, L (2013) ‘How Diversity Can Drive Innovation’ in Harvard Business Review, December 2013


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