Where are the Women at the Leadership Table of Kingdom NGOs?

I recently learned that a dear sister, and admired senior executive is stepping down from her very influential leadership position in a Faith Based NGO.  When I first heard the news, I wept.  The day after… I continued to weep… five days later, it was a full-on spiritual battle.  Not only did I mourn the reality of not seeing her with regularity, but that the seat at the table that she would leave empty would have a profound impact on the thousands of women and girls her leadership has served these many years.  Little girls around the world who could, today, look upon the top of that organizational chart and see someone who looked like them and think “maybe me someday”.  Tomorrow, they will see an empty seat and the all too familiar view of the US Faith Based NGO led by all men.  I wept, because after 22 years of doing leadership development in this sector, I’ve seen the needle move, far, far too little in making space at the table for women executives.

The reality check of recent stats:

  • Over 50% of the ones NGOs rescue from trafficking, build houses for, extend micro loans to, enroll in child development programs and bind the wounds of in refugee camps are women and girls.
  • Over 50% of the ones who directly serve those trafficked, homeless, wounded, and are the primary beneficiaries of NGO services are women.

And yet….

  • Less than 3% of US Faith Based NGO CEOs are women
  • Less than 10% of these executive teams are made up of women
  • Less than 15% of these boards are made of up women
  • Less than 20% of the top 3 layers of these organizational leaders are women (1,2)

Even with the mounting corporate sector research that says organizations thrive and grow when there is gender diversity in leadership (3).    In 2018…. How can this be?

Are we contradicting ourselves?

Most US Faith Based NGOs want to see the communities we serve empowered and the people we serve released from spiritual, material, physical and emotional poverty… AND the poverty of a marred identity that says “because you are materially poor, you are less than…”   How is it we can say to the little girl child we serve “we want you to be released to be all God has created you to be… future Uganda president, future teacher, future pastor…” and yet we say to the female staffer in Uganda, “you cannot be a senior leader in this agency.  You cannot be a country director, or our future CEO.”  Is this not a total contradiction in our message?

“Beth, you’re sounding like an angry feminist….”

Please hear me.  I do NOT deny the amazing service and leadership of the Godly men who serve the NGO sector.  One of my most impacting bosses and mentor of over 10 years was Dr. David Fraser, to whom I will forever be grateful for the model of leadership he reflected.  And lest you choose to write this off as the ranting of an angry feminist, you would be mistaken.  I’ve never in my life read Gloria Steinem, however, I have read the Greek and Hebrew exegesis of 1 Corinthians and recognize Headship in its most common usage as “source” (4, 5).  I do NOT know well the teachings of Betty Friedan, but I do know well the modeling of Jesus and His respect for, and inclusion of, women in all spheres of His ministry, and often the most important “first responders” roles (6).  Hear me CLEARLY… this is NOT necessarily about replacing the current seats at the table with women, it IS about expanding the seats at the table at every level of leadership in our organizations but most especially at the top.

“But it’s not cultural in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, in America to have women leaders…”

My words are not a western ideology, I’ve studied global leadership, I’ve lived in Africa, I have led and taught people from 83 countries of the world.  In a massive global study (66 countries) of the leadership qualities we admire most, the following were most highly rated across the globe:  a) Being trustworthy, honest and just, b.) Having foresight and planning ahead, c.) being positive, encouraging, motivating and building confidence and d.) being communicative, informed, and a team integrator (7).  Of these, all four areas are considered feminine leadership qualities that male executives would do well to emulate (8). My words are NOT western ideology. They are Kingdom ideology.  The ideology of 1Peter 2:9 that says I have called YOU to be a PECULIAR people… set apart from the way this world, and our cultures, operate to reflect MY kingdom values.

“But it’s not our organizational ‘norm’ to have too many women in leadership roles… “

To say that how our organizations have functioned in the past is how our organizations should function in the future is like saying to Jesus “I’m sorry Lord, my sinful ways are all I know, therefore you MUST let me keep sinning”.  Really?

You can cling to history, heritage and the status quo, but it will be at your organization’s peril.  There is significant research that supports the business case for diversity of gender and nationality in leadership roles.  But even more importantly, if you want your organization to exist in the future, now is the time for change.  Those thousands of Beloveds in my classrooms the last 20 years will not stand for lack of diversity in our organizations.  God Bless the Millennials and their entrepreneurial spirit! Because they will help us change OR become tomorrows’ competing NGO that put the current NGOs out of business.  Choose now which outcome you prefer.

“Why should I have to give up my seat for a woman?” 

Hear me again, that is NOT what this is about.  It’s about expanding the table for a more balanced, and Kingdom-reflecting table.  Kingdom community is based on ALL of the ones God created to bring their talents and gifts to bear (9). The elimination of male leaders would NOT be Godly, nor would it represent a Kingdom table.  But if your power is predicated on the oppression and exclusion of the ones who are ALSO made in God’s image, who are ALSO called to bring their gifts of preaching, teaching and leadership to bear on the enterprise, if that is the basis of your power, then that does NOT reflect the Kingdom of God and you need to either repent and ask forgiveness or step down.  The choice is yours.

“Well at least we have one… One VP, One Board Member, One Executive Team member who is female….”         One is not enough.

  • She becomes the excuse to become accepting of an imbalanced leadership table
  • She becomes the proxy for the few other women leaders in the organization – a very unfair position to cast on anyone
  • She becomes the poster child for either good leadership or used as the excuse for bad leadership and why there aren’t more than one.
  • Her different leadership style will continually be critiqued through a gender-biased lens of male counterparts (10).

One Is Not Enough.

“We tried having a woman leader, it didn’t go well”.

By that same token, all men would have to lose their leadership seats because the stats on male leaders who don’t lead well, embezzle from the organization, and sexually harass the employees cannot be ignored.  So if one bad woman leader means no future women leaders, then one bad male leader eliminates all males from leadership as well….  Try again.

“We haven’t promoted some because we do not want to take them away from their role in the family”. 

My colleagues get tired of hearing me say “Your first leadership role is in your family”.  I repeat that regularly to the two Godly men I serve with because I know how easy it is to make work your Idol and how gratifying it is to get accolades at work when your role as a parent may take decades to see the final outcome.  However, I’ve never heard an organization NOT extend a promotion or opportunity to a man given his family life situation.

Yet Christian NGOs do this to promising women managers… “she has kids, we can’t make her travel”, “she just had a baby, she needs to focus on that”…. HEAR ME…. What she NEEDS is the respect of being able to make this choice for herself AND for Christian NGOs to catch up to the corporate sector in their creativity to make leadership roles work for working mothers, single mothers, etc.  It takes intentionality and willpower of those that influence HR policy and those that supervise these women.

 “We just can’t find any good women in our field”.

Can’t find ‘em?  Then develop them.  Examine the amount of money the industry spends on developing the existing male talent pool and leaders.  Are we investing the same in developing the next generation of women for their seat in the executive suite?   How much informal mentoring is happening on the bike paths, basketball courts and golf courses that excludes women from that opportunity for more development and exposure to executives?  Are we creating equal opportunities for informal exposure and development of women?  “If there’s a single barrier that affects all women, it’s exclusion from networks and conversations that open doors to further development and promotion” (11).   (Next blog:  Barriers to women leaders)

Stand up, step up and speak up…and then take action.

To all the dear brothers out there who have tried, in words and actions, to support the expansion of the table to include more women leaders, thank you.  But you’re not dead yet and you’re not done yet.  You’ve read your Bible, you’ve seen the stats, you’ve heard the challenges from your sisters themselves… what are you going to do to help with the lift?   Because we can no longer believe your noble, heart-felt words if they are not followed by bold and steadfast action.   In fact, we’d rather you say nothing at all.

Don’t tell us you hear our challenge and then do nothing to examine and change the recruiting, hiring, development and advancement practices of your agency to provide more opportunity for women in leadership.  Examine the unconscious and secondary bias in the system that is creating barriers.  Find ways to ensure diverse voices are in every endeavor, at every level and equally valued.  Use your brain, your power, your influence to make a change, and then scoot over and make space at the table for the strong, strategic, God-loving, Kingdom-serving women who want to join you there. Women and Men together leading the Kingdom organization. (12)

Lastly, to my dear Sister, as you leave us soon …. Know that your service has made a difference, your leadership has had an impact on thousands, and may the scars you bear be the marks of honor of how God used you to blaze the path that someday other sisters will follow.

Author’s note:  The opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect any organization, supervisors, colleagues, faculty or students I have been affiliated with in the past, present or future.  They are my own, influenced by 22 years in leadership development, advanced studies in the field, and influenced by many brilliant Godly men and women who have been passionate about a Kingdom table long before I was born and who have modeled Kingdom community in my presence.  I am grateful.  You may not like or agree with my views but that does not change them.  My words may get me criticized, marginalized or even fired.  But I cannot NOT speak them.  Developing leaders who reflect the Kingdom of God is MY calling and I will not back down, sit down or keep quiet.  To do so would be treason to the One who has called me to this.


  1. Accord Network – http://www.accordnetwork.org/ (review of orgs)
  2. Curry, J. A. Reynolds, Women in Leadership National Study, http://www.gordon.edu/womeninleadership
  3. CEB/Gardner: The Four Imperatives to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. Industry report, 2017.
  4. Cunningham, L, D. Hamilton, (2000). Why Not Women:  A fresh look at scripture on women in missions, ministry and leadership.  Seattle, WA, YWAM Publishing.
  5. Egalitarian Pioneers, Mimi Hadad, Christians for Biblical Equality – https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/egalitarian-pioneers
  6. Biblical Basis for Women’s service in the church, N.T. Wright – Christians for Biblical Equality https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/biblical-basis-women%E2%80%99s-service-church
  7. Javidan, M., Dorfman, P., deLuque, M., House, R.J. (2006). In the Eye of the Beholder:  Cross Cultural Lessons in Leadership from the Project GLOBE, Pg. 67- 90 Academy of Management Perspectives, Feb, 2006.
  8. Gerzema, J. (2013) Feminine Values can give tomorrow’s leaders an edge. Harvard Business Review, Aug 2013
  9. Grenz, S. (2015) Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living. Baker Academic
  10. Ibarra, H., R. Ely, D. Kolb (2013). Women Rising:  The Unseen Barriers, Harvard Business Review Sept 2013
  11. Groysburg, B., K. Connellly (2013). Great Leaders Who Make Diversity Work, Harvard Business Review Sept 2013
  12. Women and Men Leading Together – DAI International – https://www.daintl.org/programs/online-learning/#courses

About Dr. Beth A. Birmingham

Follower of Jesus, leadership developer, professor of leadership and international development, walking with people and organizations who end poverty, fight injustice and stand with the vulnerable. My Gallup strength is Activator, my sweet spot is Agitator, never comfortable with a status quo that oppresses, silences or marginalizes.

Posted on March 28, 2018, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you. I needed to see that someone in leadership said this and that you are speaking from a Bible-based Kingdom-centric perspective.

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