The charity sector is vitally important for women. With women more likely than men to be in poverty at every stage of their adult lives, more likely to experience ill health, and more likely to be carers for parents, children and partners alike, the charity sector provides an essential source of support, community and advocacy. The sector also provides a growing source of employment for women, having created an additional 120,000 jobs for women over the past decade, to become the source of one in every 25 jobs filled by women in 2022. It also provides volunteering opportunities to 31% of women across England, which fosters skills, nurtures relationships and communities, and yields a myriad of wellbeing benefits.

Overall, Pro Bono Economics (PBE) estimates that women in the charity sector contributed approximately £19 billion to the economy in 2019. This includes a contribution of £9.9 billion through volunteering and £9.2 billion through their work as employees in the charity sector.

Across the charity sector, there are brilliant examples of women building solutions to the knotty problems their communities face. There are outstanding female leaders running organisations from food banks to cancer research charities. To the female leaders interviewed for this report, the charity sector has enabled them to achieve their ambitions, forge friendships, and provided the means to care for their families.

However, the charity sector is far from a panacea for women. There is a profound – and often under-discussed – gender imbalance in the sector. While women make up 68% of the charity sector’s employees, they only make up between 56% and 63% of the sector’s CEOs. That falls to 35% of the CEOs of the largest charities and 46% of the CEOs of the oldest charities. While women are fractionally more likely to volunteer than men, last time it was measured, male trustees outnumbered female trustees by two to one. And while women are more generous than men - with 72% of women giving to charity, compared to 61% of men - the nature of wealth means that they are significantly less likely to be major philanthropists. Women account for fewer than 11% of high-net-worth individuals, and correspondingly just seven women featured in The Sunday Times Giving List independently last year, compared to 69 men.

This dominance of men in positions of power in the charity sector; at leadership level, at board level, and in philanthropy, has consequences. The prejudices, misogyny and sexism, which affect women at work and women in leadership across all sectors of the economy, are prevalent in the charity sector too. Women and girls’ charities are too often deprioritised and are chronically underfunded. Gender stereotypes about the types of roles women ‘should’ be doing persist and are felt to affect team make-up. Women running charities still balance the majority of the responsibilities for caring and the home, and this impacts the shape of their careers. Women in the charity sector can be and are underestimated and undermined. They can and do experience discrimination, tokenism, objectification, and harassment.

All of this is felt most keenly by women of colour, disabled women, LGBT+ women, and other women in the sector who face forms of systemic disempowerment. It also plays out differently at different points in women’s lives.

Over the years, the charity sector has improved for women, but the job of achieving equal representation for women in the charity sector is not yet done. Instead, equality is often taken for granted because the charity sector can ‘feel’ very female as a result of its workforce.
How funders use the power they hold is evidently critical in changing this. Increased funding for the women and girls’ sector is essential. There is also a clear need for more consistent support for current and future female leaders, particularly around confidence and network-building – and infrastructure organisations need to consider how they reach beyond their current audience to support the women unaware of their services.

Boards have a critical role to play as well. Boards could be much more proactive in raising issues that affect women, including reviewing benefits, fair pay, leave arrangements, flexible working and policies to ensure that they are family-friendly, supportive of caring responsibilities, and competitive in the tight labour market that the sector operates in. Boards could be offering more encouragement to the female leaders in their organisations to make time and resources available for their own development as leaders. It is also essential that boards continue to make progress on recruiting trustees from more diverse backgrounds, and go further to ensure that all trustees feel included, able to contribute and are listened to equally.

Making the charity sector a better place for women to work, volunteer and lead is not just a women’s issue. It is about building a sector that is even better at meeting the needs of its services users, which should matter to everyone. It is about unlocking more of the potential of women at all stages of their lives, which should matter to everyone. And, of course, it is about fairness and equity, which should matter to everyone too.

Read the full report 

Creative commons attribution: Lou Jasmine at The Unmistakables.