On the face of it YMCA Birmingham – like much of the voluntary sector – doesn’t seem to have a problem with gender diversity.
After all, about two thirds of our 120 employees are female and they even make up a clear majority of ‘first tier’ managers. The picture becomes less rosy however, the further up the organisational hierarchy you go. By the time you get to our senior management team only one out of the five of us is female. And we are not alone in this. My own observations tend to suggest that the picture is not so very different in many of the other 114 local YMCA associations in England and Wales. Certainly progress has been made – the National Council of YMCAs now has a female chief executive, for instance– but gatherings of senior YMCA staff still look like a bit of an old boys’ club.
No one has set out to make this the case. We have equal opportunities recruitment policies and a range of employment policies and procedures that are designed to make our workplaces welcoming to women. But despite this we often do not attract large numbers of female applicants for senior posts, especially at chief executive level. This is especially surprising given that most YMCAs still place an occupational requirement on their most senior post to be filled by a Christian. Women make up a clear majority of practising Christians in this country, so there is an argument for saying that statistically women should be more likely than men to apply for chief executive roles.
Part of this might be a reflection of our history and name – we were set up by twelve young men, primarily for the benefit of other young men – so there might be a view (even if only subconsciously) that it makes more sense for men to lead a charity whose name explicitly references men. But the reality is that for over a hundred years we have provided services to men and women equally so there is no reason why – all other things being equal – our leadership should not be more reflective of the gender balance of our beneficiaries, and of the general population.
But, of course, all other things are not equal.
It is clear that employers cannot address this challenge alone. Part of the challenge relates to different perceptions and expectations of people according to their gender that are deeply embedded in our society. But that should not give us a ‘free pass’ to throw up our hands in despair and claim that there’s nothing we can do. Expectations can be raised. Perceptions can be changed. But I’ve come to acknowledge that this will involve change from men as well. Indeed, given that the overwhelming majority of YMCA chief executives are currently men, it may well require change from men first.
Speaking to female YMCA colleagues one of the themes that comes up repeatedly is a concern about not fitting in with the prevailing culture. This came as a genuine surprise to me as it didn’t occur to me for a moment that the culture of our meetings could put anybody off. But the comment has been made or implied to me so often that it cannot simply be discounted. Without anyone necessarily meaning to, we have created a culture in which many women feel like they are outsiders. Culture is a slippery thing, but at root it is about what we do, what are prepared to accept being done, and what we are not prepared to accept being done.
So if we want to change the prevailing culture we have to accept that we men need to behave differently and start challenging behaviours that at the moment are not being challenged. In meetings for instance, we need to conduct ourselves less like rutting stags vying for supremacy. We need to become conscious of not allowing women time to talk, or of talking over them and of side-lining their concerns as being of minority interest. Since I started to try and address these issues I have become more conscious of these behaviours and have seen all of them exhibited in YMCA meetings by well-meaning male colleagues on numerous occasions. And it these ‘intangible’ behaviours that have helped to build a culture that many women find inhospitable. It sends a message that it is a men’s club into which they are being invited as guests.
If we were prepared to challenge these behaviours it might help to remove one of the invisible barriers to entry to the top table.
Alan Fraser, CEO