The Project

Diversity is about recognizing the multitude of characteristics we all hold. It encompasses the dimensions of gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, and sexuality. Inclusion relates to the ability to leverage these traits by enabling the participation of all. And while the international development sector frequently promulgates these values through its work

Although gender has become an increasingly important priority in the international development sector – increasing from 27 percent of ODA in 2011 to 42 percent in 2021. And while an increasing focus on diversity is welcome and long overdue, the (scarce) evidence available hints that for many international development organizations diversity looks something like this:

“There is a lot of talk and internal consultation, but no real action (yet)”

From: The New Humanitarian (13/10/2021) “Aid agency actions on racial justice ‘inadequate’, aid workers say”.

And while it is important to remember that diversity and inclusion crosses a myriad of dimensions outside of gender – such as ethnicity, disability, sexuality, religion and race – the basic question remains:

“How can an organization charged with designing programs and policies be effective if its leadership does not reflect the diversity of its final beneficiaries?”

It is our contention, that they can’t.

The Hypothesis

While we intend to cover a wider array of dimensions of diversity in the future, to kick off the project (and as a tribute to International Women’s Day) we decided to initially focus on a core dimension of diversity: gender. With the basic idea being that it would be useful to expand the information available and as it’s probable that if women are poorly represented on senior leadership teams, other groups likely will be too.

Although the available evidence is scarce, that which is available provides some support for our contention that the diversity of senior leadership teams in international development is still limited (eg 1 and 2). Taking gender – while women are estimted to account for 75% of the not-for-profit workforce, they only acount for 43% of CEOs in the US. Mirroring the conclusion by UNWomen that found women accounted for a much smaller share of senior leadership positions than entry-level positions.

The Data

To test the idea, we needed data on the composition of senior leadership teams for as many relevant organizations as possible. To achieve this therefore first analysed data from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). As this database not only includes aid recipients but also donor governments, philanthropic foundations, and other organisations that either provide or receive funding.

After having produced a comprehensive list of 500+ organizations operating in the international development sector we refined the listing to focus on a sample of the largest organization. With the size of our sample based on the time and resources at our disposal. With the final list including approximately 150 organizations receiving funding from major donors in the sector.

We then engaged several Ugandan research assistants who helped us review each organization’s website to collect data on the size and composition of their senior leadership team(s) and board. The focus on the highest levels of management is based on the assumption that they provide the greatest influence on how an organisation functions and resources are allocated. With more diverse and representative leadership teams being better able to understand and provide support to the ultimate beneficiaries of their work.

For senior management, we included anyone with a senior title (such as ‘Director’), with this being based on the hierarchy of staff titles presented on their website. Country and regional directors were also included but were separately categorized for analysis. Board members were also identified from an organization’s website and included all members responsible for monitoring and advising on an organization’s performance, strategy, governance and/or leadership.

Note: One of the constraints in our approach is that we assigned the sex of each staff member by the information available on each organization’s website, via their name, picture, title and/or chosen pronoun. However, we are aware that this may not always reflect their true gender identity. As such, in the future we intend to seek feedback on the data from surveyed organisations to provide an opportunity to correct any factual errors.

Our (initial) Results

For those of you that are interested in exploring the data, we have an anonymized version of our initial dataset available for download here.

You can also find a detailed explanation of the results and the associated data and R code here. Key takeaway points from the analysis have been outlined below:

  • Females account for approximately 50 percent of senior leadership teams for the organizations included in our sample.
  • Although this suggests men and women were equally represented at senior levels, this is lower than expected, given the proportion of females working in the sector is likely to be high.
  • When positions were separated their management role, the results were similar. With women making up 50% of senior management, 48% of board members and 47% of country directors.
  • Unfortunately, once positions were examined in greater detail the picture became less rosy. With women holding only 32% of senior positions on senior management teams (such as CEO) and a little over 46% of senior board positions.
  • Moreover, while our data suggested organizations were close to achieving gender parity overall gender diversity appeared extremely uneven across organizations. With men holding 60% or more of positions on the senior management team and board for almost a third of organizations. While a little over 40% of organizations had men in all the most senior positions of leadership.