By Jack Larkham, Research and Policy Analyst

Civil society is awash with people and organisations doing incredible things to tackle
inequality in society, in education and in the labour market. But there is evidence to say civil society’s own record when it comes to these matters leaves much to be desired. 

Newly-released data shows that when it comes to gender, ethnicity and social mobility, the sector has above average levels of inequality. In many cases, these gaps have widened over the last 10 years. The exception to this is the growth in the number of people with disabilities employed within the sector. With the total number rising by 72% between 2011 and 2020, people with disabilities now make up one-fifth of civil society’s workforce.

Women are underrepresented in civil society leadership roles, and the gender pay gap is higher than the UK average 

Two-thirds (66%) of people working within the sector are women. This is considerably higher than the economy-wide figure of 48%. However, charity boards and leadership roles are still dominated by men. Research shows that two-thirds of trustees are male, while women make up just over one in three (36%) chief executives among the 100 largest charities in the UK. This goes some way to explaining recent figures showing that civil society’s gender pay gap is not only above the UK average, but also grew at a greater rate last year. 

The UK’s gender pay gap has steadily fallen in recent years, from 19.2% in 2016 to 14.9% in 2020. And while it is higher than the UK average, civil society’s gender pay gap followed a similar trajectory, dropping from 23.8% to 18.3% over the same period. 

Disappointingly, during 2021 there was an uptick in the gender pay gap for both the economy as a whole and civil society, with the sector’s pay gap leaping back above the 20% mark and rising to 5.3 percentage points above the UK average. 

No doubt the pandemic and the sector’s response will have played a significant role. Cancer Research UK provides a high-profile example of this, with an organisational restructure during the pandemic resulting in a number of female senior leaders leaving the organisation at the same time as lower paid retail jobs – predominantly held by women – become a larger proportion of their overall workforce. 

Ethnic minority representation in the civil society workforce is a decade behind the economy as a whole 

Between 2011 and 2020, the number of jobs within civil society grew by 21% to just shy of one million, almost double the rate of job growth compared to the UK economy as a whole.

But looking below these headline numbers shows that growth has not been evenly spread and progress on racial equality has been glacial. The proportion of the civil society workforce made up of people from ethnic minority groups only grew by 1.4 percentage points between 2011 and 2020, lower than the growth in the economy as a whole (2.6pp).  

The consequence of this slow growth is that civil society is now 10 years behind the UK average when it comes to ethnic minority representation in the workforce. By 2020, the proportion of those from ethnic minority groups holding jobs in civil society was just one in 10 (10.1%), the same as it was in the whole of the UK economy 10 years earlier. 

Representation within the sector varies significantly across different ethnic minority groups.  Civil society has slightly higher than average employment of Black/African/Caribbean Black British workers. However, Asian/British Asian workers are under-represented – just over 4% of civil society workers are from Asian/British Asian backgrounds, compared to almost 7% in the rest of the economy.  It is this gap which accounts for the difference in ethnic minority employment overall between civil society and the wider UK economy.  

Despite significant fluctuations throughout the decade, the proportion of Asian/British Asian workers within the civil society workforce has grown quickly, with the total number of jobs filled by Asian/British Asian people having increased by 73% between 2011 and 2020. 

People from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to ‘get in’ and ‘get on’ within civil society 

Across the country, there are fantastic examples of civil society organisations trying to improve social mobility. Despite this, civil society is below average when it comes to social mobility within its own workforce. 

Comparing civil society with the UK economy as a whole shows that socio-economic background plays a bigger role in determining someone’s chances of both getting into the workforce and progressing into higher paid jobs within the sector. 

Over half of all roles (55%) are filled by people from more advantaged socio-economic groups, more than in the economy as a whole, where just under half (47%) go to those from more advantaged backgrounds. 

Class inequalities are compounded when we look at the breakdown of the socio-economic backgrounds of those in more senior (and higher paid) jobs. People from more advantaged backgrounds are around two and a half times more likely than those from less privileged backgrounds to fill a job classified as ‘higher,’ such as management or professional roles. 

Almost six in 10 (58%) of these management or professional roles go to people from more advantaged backgrounds, while those from less privileged backgrounds fill just under a quarter (23%). In the economy as a whole, these ratios are slightly closer together, with those from more advantaged backgrounds twice as likely to fill more senior positions (52% vs 26% respectively). 

The causes of this are complex, but it is well-established that educational attainment has a significant impact on future employment and earnings. Socio-economic barriers to university education therefore have a major influence on job market access and progression for disadvantaged groups. 

When compared to the economy as a whole, the civil society workforce has significantly higher levels of education. Just under six in 10 (56%) people employed in the sector have a degree or equivalent, while the average is just four in 10 (40%) across all sectors. 

While this might simply reflect the nature of work within the sector, it may also indicate that employers are more likely to demand degree-level education and therefore inadvertently reinforce class-based discrimination. 

Rapidly growing levels of employment for people with disabilities has been the only real equality success story for civil society 

The growth of employment of people with disabilities within the sector has significantly outstripped that of the UK economy as a whole. People with disabilities now make up over one fifth of the civil society workforce, up from 14% at the start of the decade and six percentage points higher than the wider economy. 

This translates to a 72% growth in the number of people with disabilities working within the sector between 2011 and 2020, double the rate of growth (36%) in the UK economy as a whole. 

While there is no definitive explanation for this, it is interesting to note that people with disabilities are more or just as likely to participate in activities related to civil society than those without disabilities. For example, volunteering rates among disabled and non-disabled people are broadly similar, while people with disabilities are more likely to undertake civic participation, civic consultation and social action. 

It may be that participation in voluntary activities is enabling people to build up relevant experience and networks which then act as a stepping stone into the civil society workforce. As such, organisations may wish to consider how they can leverage these activities in order to extend their reach to other groups currently under-represented in their workforce. 

Strategy, better data, and more equitable recruitment practices all play a role in improving civil society diversity 

These trends can be reversed. For example, since launching their EDI strategy in 2021, the proportion of ethnic minority workers at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Charity has more than doubled. Sightsavers states that its empowerment and inclusion strategy has resulted in the number of disabled people in their workforce doubling between 2018 and 2020. 

As Macmillan Cancer Support has recognised, self-reflection and committed leadership are the first step on the path to improvement. Collecting and monitoring data that allows organisations to understand the diversity of their workforce is fundamental to that. Setting organisational targets as a result of this data, as highlighted in ACEVO’s principles to address the diversity deficit, is also crucial. 

While the collection of gender and ethnicity data is more easily implemented, organisations may find it harder to monitor their performance when it comes to the socio-economic backgrounds of their employees. The Social Mobility Commission provides a number of useful resources, including advice on how to: collect and measure data, understand performance using benchmarking tools, and how to optimise use of data to inform and drive change using their Employers Toolkit. 

Reforming hiring practices that can inadvertently create barriers to the workforce is another area where civil society organisations can improve diversity and inclusion. Employers should consider whether alternatives such as skills-based recruitment would enable them to ascertain whether a candidate has the requisite talent for the job. There is also evidence to suggest that blind recruitment – where identifying data such as name, ethnicity and age is excluded when applications are being considered – can help to reduce bias at that stage of the hiring process. 

Walking the walk 

Tackling inequality is at the heart of what civil society does. From the suffragette movement to Stonewall, it has been the engine behind the UK’s drive towards a more equitable and inclusive society over the last century. 

But the sector’s own performance when it comes to equality shows that there is considerable work to be done if it is to maximise its contribution to building a fairer and more just society. 

The data on the civil society workforce demonstrates that, though the sector may talk the talk when it comes to equality, there is some way to go before it is truly walking the walk towards a more equal playing field.