The logo of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Socities on the side of a vehicle. Photo by: Aurélie Marrier d'Unienville / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The first internal audit on women’s leadership by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has revealed a glass ceiling across the federation, as well as falling numbers of women on its governing board.

A report released Thursday compiling data from IFRC’s 191 national societies around the world found that only 5.9% have both a female president and secretary-general — the top two leadership roles — while almost 10 times as many have men in both positions.

“The numbers ... show that we are not at all where we believe we should be and that we need to do a much better job at ensuring gender equality.”

— Elhadj As Sy, secretary general, IFRC

Overall, 21% of national societies have a female president, while 31% have a female secretary-general, although women make up a little more than half of the societies’ paid workforce.

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy said the organization undertook the analysis because “we believe that diversity, including gender diversity, makes us better … However, we also knew that we had a distance to travel and we wanted to understand exactly where we stood.”

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IFRC’s Geneva-based secretariat, which steers the federation of national societies, has neither a female president nor a female secretary-general. The new figures show that the percentage of women on its governing board also declined from 33% in 2009 to just 17% in 2017, the last time elections were held, and that the proportion of women among its 1,500-strong workforce drops as employment grade increases.

“We were disappointed [with the results],” Sy told Devex. “The numbers aren’t necessarily worse than other organizations … but they show that we are not at all where we believe we should be and that we need to do a much better job at ensuring gender equality … There is a real willingness to change.”

He added that: “As far as I am aware, the kind of detailed analysis that we have done is not common across the sector so it is therefore very difficult to know exactly what the situation is [in terms of women in leadership]. That is a problem in itself.”

A 2017 study from the Australia-based Humanitarian Advisory Group described research on women’s leadership in the humanitarian sector as “almost entirely absent.”

However, research from the broader NGO and charity sector suggests that while the majority of the workforce is female, representation drops off at higher levels of management and leadership.

A Devex analysis of 16 major U.K.-based nonprofits — based on data released under new government regulations earlier this year — found that while women made up more than 72% of the workforce at the lowest-paid level across the organizations, that dropped to 57% in the highest-paid quartile.

Just two organizations — Unicef UK and Leonard Cheshire Disability — had the same proportion of women at the highest and lowest level of pay. The rest had more men at the top than at the bottom.

For IFRC, it was a widespread feeling of frustration at the lack of leadership diversity that emerged from its 2017 governing board elections that prompted the effort to drive change across the organization.

The secretariat now wants to achieve gender parity at all levels of employment by 2028 — a target that Sy said “follows a detailed analysis of current staffing as well as projected growth and staff turnover.”

It will also work with the national societies to set their own targets by the end of the year, and will support them to work toward them through processes such as talent management and new recruitment practices, with progress to be tracked annually.

For example, one issue raised by female staff has been the inability to gain field-level experience because of family commitments that make it hard to be away from home for long periods of time. Without field experience, it can be difficult to progress in the humanitarian sector. IFRC has now opened a talent management program that offers shorter-term as well as longer-term experiences.

Sy said that although IFRC is not happy with the proportion of women in leadership across the organization, “we can’t find solutions unless we’re first willing to articulate the problem.”

He added that “leaders across the sector need to do a better job of talking openly and honestly about the difficulties we are facing and the cultural and organizational challenges we have inherited.”

The Humanitarian Advisory Group is currently undertaking new research into the state of diversity across the sector, which is due to be published later this year.

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Deputy News Editor. Based in London, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on Europe & Africa. She has previously worked as a writer, researcher and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.