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Sarah Vibert

Sarah Elliott (formerly Vibert)

Sarah Elliott (formerly Vibert)

Chief Executive Officer

Sarah controls the direction of NCVO

Sarah Vibert
Chief Executive Officer

Is this what a voluntary sector CEO looks like?

Sarah Vibert

Sarah Elliott (formerly Vibert)

Sarah Elliott (formerly Vibert)

Chief Executive Officer

Sarah controls the direction of NCVO

Sarah Vibert
Chief Executive Officer

To mark International Women’s Day 2023, our chief executive Sarah Vibert reflects on what changes are needed to encourage more women into leadership positions in the voluntary sector.

Last week we were reminded that men outnumber women two to one in the top 100 charities by income. It got me thinking about why. In my experience, I believe we’ve got much more work to do on inclusion if we are to create greater gender diversity in charity leadership.

For International Women’s Day 2023, I’m sharing what I think we need to change so more women can take on charity chief executive roles and thrive in them.

Get the basics right

Flexible working, shared parental leave, and menopause and reproductive health policies are all the foundations of supporting women into leadership roles. Many organisations have these policies, but as a sector we need to do more to embed how these work in practice.

Organisations should also consider how they can support with childcare. PwC's Women in Work Index 2023 shows women are priced out of work by lack of affordable childcare.

Normalise flexible working

In NCVO and ACEVO’s Time to Flex report we recommended making all roles flexible by default. We need more chief executive job shares.

As women leaders, we must visibly show flexible working in practice. I used to hide that I’m a working mum, making up excuses to leave meetings early and worrying people wouldn’t take me seriously.

Today I’m proud to be a visible working parent, not only because it inspires other women, but it also normalises this for my children. The latter is so important to lay the ground for the next generation to achieve full gender equality.

Don’t conform, lead differently

As women leaders we have power. We can do things differently. But we often revert to working in ways that conform to patriarchal structures.

Take breakfast meetings and networking drinks for example. For me, breakfast meetings mean complex planning to ensure my two boys are dropped off at school, and all the tears and guilt that accompany this. And there are many reasons that networking drinks aren’t inclusive.

When I tweeted that I rarely accept invitations to speak at evening events because I don’t want to miss my children’s bedtimes, another female chief executive said I therefore shouldn’t be in this job at this stage of life. We must keep questioning where power sits and if we might be perpetuating myths and negative stereotypes, instead of seeing the value in doing things differently.

Take an intersectional approach to inclusion strategies and practice

I write as a White, married, university graduate. I have a lot of privilege. Women leaders with relative privilege must be active allies.

Single parents experience additional barriers. And there is a double disadvantage experienced by my Black and global majority sister chief executives. Fawcett Society's Broken Ladder research shows that at every stage of the career journey, including in senior leadership, women of colour are being locked out from reaching their true potential.

We must also change the heteronormative lens through which so much of our workforce planning takes place.

Celebrate and embrace difference

I’ve stolen the title of this blog from Sarah Atkinson who tweeted #ThisIsWhataCEOLooksLike when she was told she didn’t have 'a CEO look’. What followed was thousands of female leaders sharing their pictures and celebrating their difference.

What gives me most hope is that I increasingly see feminist leadership values coming to the fore in our sector. Feminist leadership is characterised by cooperation, not competition. No one person and their ego can solve the challenges we as a sector must address.

At NCVO, I’m proud to be part of a team of feminist leaders, three of whom identify as men.

Call it out

I’d encourage other women and our male allies to keep calling out unhelpful behaviours.

Meetings where men speak three times as much as women are very familiar to me. I was told by a man in a senior post in the sector, ‘you’ve done very well to get to your position’. Men don’t get told this.

I recently met Ruth Davison, chief executive at Refuge. She’s clear that sexist language and stereotyping are all part of the same continuum that includes sexual harassment and violence against women. It’s female voluntary sector chief executives who experience the worst of social media trolling, including death threats.

Sexual harassment is well documented in our sector. See Third Sector's survey of fundraisers, for example. We must continue to tackle and take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Resources like the Fawcett Society's Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace toolkit are a good place to start.

Provide support

Finally, I couldn’t do my job without the network of support I have from other leaders in the sector, who are generous with their time, advice, and willingness to listen.

Boards must prioritise coaching for chief executives, especially women, who often undervalue their strengths.

Thank you to those who have supported me in my career, and to the thousands of feminist leaders I work alongside who inspire me every day.

Sarah Vibert with her two sons
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