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‘Why are there so few women CEOs and Chairs in International NGOs?’ - Findings from Women’s International Leadership Development's (WILD) Action Research Project

Mayvin Director Sarah Fraser and Penny Lawrence from Women’s International Leadership Development (WILD) are organisers of the event: Feminist futures – leadership, diversity and women. This event will address some of the trickiest issues around women in leadership and the wider agenda of diversity and feminist leadership. And to complement the event, WILD is sharing information on their action […]
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Mayvin Director Sarah Fraser and Penny Lawrence from Women’s International Leadership Development (WILD) are organisers of the event: Feminist futures – leadership, diversity and women.

This event will address some of the trickiest issues around women in leadership and the wider agenda of diversity and feminist leadership. And to complement the event, WILD is sharing information on their action research project:

‘Why are there so few women CEOs and Chairs in INGOs’?

Whilst many INGOs appear to have a healthy gender balance, there are still fewer women CEOs and Chairs in a sector that explicitly recognises and espouses women’s empowerment. 70% of INGO staff are women but only 30–35% reach the top of their organisations.

WILD uses an evidence-based, action research approach, along with a volunteer convenor and wonderful partners (such as Bond, Fair Share Campaign and others) to discover what exactly is getting in the way of progress.

Despite the actions that many INGOs have taken to be ‘good employers’ including flexible working, carers, shared paternity leave and encouraging women in talent pipelines, the needle doesn’t seem to have shifted. The problem is systematic. Given recent events, it is frustrating that so little is being done to think more deeply about what really needs to change within the walls of INGOs. Policies abound but if behaviours don’t allow the policies to be implemented then organisational norms and accepted behaviours need to be challenged. Unconscious bias and traditional models of leadership seem to frustrate attempts to change and hold back too many talented staff.

Successful women CEOs and leaders learn how to adapt their natural styles, as with any leader, to suit an organisation and get things done. However, the extent to which women CEOs and leaders have had to do this has taken some women out of their comfort zone. Women feel they have unconsciously become part of 'the system' in order to fit in and have an impact. How can women lead with authenticity to be even more effective in achieving the social justice they strive for?

Action Research update #1

The research of each of WILD'S core participants is guided by feminist principles that they have co-created 1: shared leadership, inclusive and participatory approaches. WILD is using narrative qualitative methodologies as well as more traditional data collection that can be repeated and expanded to include others who may want to join. Personal commitment, learning and self-care are as important as organisational buy-in to the research and a commitment to share our findings.

Our principles

Step 1: Deciding our key research questions – each INGO has adapted the following questions to suit their own INGO but these are core to all:

  1. What is encouraging and enabling women 2 to progress into senior leadership roles?
  2. What is blocking women from progressing into senior leadership roles?
  3. And what difference and/or change would make the most sustainable difference to organisational cultures to enable more women to progress into the top senior leadership roles?

Step 2: Gathering baseline data. WILD is now starting to mine the data that is already available and identify what (if any) further data may be needed to fill in the gaps. For instance, Bond will be asking members to help fill quantitative data gaps, WILD will focus on the qualitative data side to unearth the nature of the challenge before focusing on solutions. (through to Dec 2019)

Step 3: Learning from others. What actions seem to have worked to tackle similar challenges in other organisations and/or sectors? Mayvin will lead a workshop at the end of November to explore the evidence and learning from elsewhere. Mayvin hopes to invite more INGO participants to this event. And so, if you have examples of good practice in overcoming blockers and/or enablers to share from any sector, please let us know. (Oct 19–Jan 20)

Step 4: Agreeing on actions to be taken and monitoring impact. WILD wants to share the learning more widely through this blog, the Bond Conference (20th March 2020) and a Bond report sponsored by Perrett Laver... and any other events!

Step 5: Taking action and monitoring impact then reporting on results and sharing learning (Mar–Jul 20)

Step 6: Round 2. Current members may want to do a second round of action research and so others may want to join (September 20 onwards)


There are real issues of intersectionality here that we recognise. Our research questions are an entry point: a way into a seemingly overwhelming, complex and vague ambition to be ‘more inclusive’.
We hope that ongoing data collection will better monitor gender dynamics and enable cross-sector comparisons and learning 3. Additionally, WILD wants to enable sustained progress so the international development sector can benefit from talented leaders despite gender. Finally, we remain optimistic and are determined we can do this.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic of women CEOs in International INGOs. If you would like to share your thoughts then do join the conversation on Twitter @MayvinLtd and @Resonate_Sarah.

You can also find out about our future events here: Mayvin Events Calendar


1. See appendix 1, below
2. Those self-identifying as women
2. See Hampton Alexander report as an ongoing resource in the business sector

Appendix 1

WILD Research Core group Principles based on Action Aid work,  with thanks, agreed June 2019.
Feminist Principles guide us in the way we work together as the core group…..

We recognise that these principles have to be held together and some may be in tension

  1. Self-aware: ‘put your ego in the passenger seat’. Seek to engage and contribute, ‘everyone is able’, everyone has ideas to share.
  2. Self-care and caring for others. Take care of your physical and emotional needs first. Then support one another to enable us all to reach our individual, organisational and collective goals and renewal.
  3. Dismantle bias: check your own privilege and work to explore your own biases.
  4. Inclusion: create ways for everyone to be heard in our action research.
  5. Share power: lead to transform others and enable leadership across structures to enable everyone to succeed.
  6. Responsible and transparent use of power: guide and enable others. Understand your own power share your ambition, concerns and vulnerability to enable others to do the same.
  7. Accountable collaboration: bring your whole self to your task and to our meetings, offer and ask for help. Make commitments you can keep or let us know in good time if you can’t.
  8. Respectful feedback: feedback is a gift, an opportunity to grow
  9. Courage: be brave, seek transformative change and take risks to grow, ‘make failure your fuel’.
  10. Zero tolerance: for any form of discrimination or abuse of power and challenge arrogance within ourselves and our organisation
  11. Confidentiality of meetings: Chatham House rules. Comments can be generalised to be shared but must be anonymised unless prior permission is given.

Research design principles


  1. aim to undertake action research to generate action and evidence concurrently. 
We seek transformative change through the simultaneous process of taking action. Also, doing research linked together by critical reflection (see Kurt Lewin), we aim to generate and share evidence of what does and doesn’t work in the wider sector.
  2. are aiming for sustained, deeper culture change that enables wider inclusion across the sector. Whilst we need to be realistic, we need to aim high.
  3. recognise the importance of intersectionality in all work on identity and inclusion. We aim for the inclusion of all, therefore for everyone to feel a sense of belonging and for those leading to feel they can lead with authenticity.
  4. recognise the importance of understanding and tackling issues of power. This means:
  • our won power and agency
  • the structural powers in our sector
  • the lack of power of those who are marginalised that we need to find a way to hear
  • sharing the power to transform and enabling everyone to succeed.

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