Charitable think-tanks: a man’s world?

Think tanks try to influence the climate of opinion and the direction of public policy. So anyone who cares about women’s rights, their distinctive challenges and future opportunities, will want to know that think tanks are equipped to understand these and take them thoroughly into account. Perhaps this is all the more important when they are charities, benefitting from tax breaks and other benefits granted by Parliament on behalf of the public – men and women alike.

A perusal of websites, which hardly qualifies as in depth research but is based on their own public presentation of who they think they are, suggests that too many prominent and influential charitable think tanks – including the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society – may be ill-equipped to identify and integrate women’s distinctive perspectives and requirements  in their work, and that the position at such distinguished charities as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation is better but not ideal.  A rough gender balance in the governance and operational arms of a charity doesn’t automatically bring sensitivity to women’s rights and perspectives, but makes it more likely and suggests commitment to equal opportunities.

Policy Exchange describes itself as a right of centre think tank, founded by Conservative politicians including Michael Gove and Frances Maude. Of its 15 Trustees, 6 are women – better than some, as we shall see, but a minority. Startlingly, however, of the 53 staff and Fellows pictured on the website, only 7 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men.

The IEA is dedicated to free market economics and promoting free market solutions. IEA’s Board as described on its website comprises 12 people, of whom just 2 are women. Its overlapping Advisory Council of 13 has 3 women. There is thus a lop-sided gender balance at governance and strategic level. The gender balance of staff is better but still tilted towards men. Of the staff profiled on the website, 10 out of 25 are women. So far as one can judge from the website, 3 out of 10 of the most senior staff are women, and 3 out of 8 are second tier Heads. Chair, Director General and Chief Operating Officer are men.

The Henry Jackson Society describes itself as “a think tank and policy-shaping force that fights for the principles and alliances which keep societies free.” Charity-watchers may recall that both William Shawcross and Gwythian Prins had associations with this Society before their terms as Charity Commission Board members. Of its six Trustees, only one (Gisela Stuart) is a woman. Its four most senior staff are all men. Of its total staff of 22 profiled on its website, just 6 are women.

So far, it’s predominantly a man’s world.

Now let’s look at a different breed of charitable think tank, The Resolution Foundation, established to research and propose policies to meet the needs of low to middle income people (of whom women form a huge component). The Chair, Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive are men. It is important that the gender balance among the remaining staff is even, and there are women among staff Directors and authors of Foundation publications, but only 2 out of 6 Trustees are women and only 2 out of 10 Associates. Why should it be so?

Applying the same treatment to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, (IFS), which needs no introduction, the significant good news is that half of its strategy-setting Council of 30 are women (some of them redoubtable characters, too), while nearly half (41) of the 85 staff profiled on the website are women. The not-so-good news is that not only are Chair and Chief Executive both men, but 3 out of 4 of the remaining senior staff team are men, and only 2 out of 9 Trustees (elected by the Council) are women. When so many fiscal issues are not gender neutral, this doesn’t seem ideal.

What about the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), widely identified as left of centre? It describes itself as “progressive”. Uniquely in our small sample, both Chair and Chief Executive are women! Only 4 out of 11 Trustees (including the Chair) are women. But 4 out of a Leadership Team of 6 are women, and exactly half of the staff profiled on the website are women, so this is not a man’s world like Policy Exchange,  the IEA,  and Henry Jackson Society.

There is also somewhat better gender news from The Kings Fund, a famous think tank promoting good health and health services. Of its 10 Trustees, a minority 4 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men, but the senior staff team of 6 comprises 3 men and 3 women, and of the profiled staff, a majority of 62 out of 98 are women.

Finally, although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation prefers to call itself a social change organisation, I hope it won’t mind being included as a think tank for the purposes of this blog. A majority of Trustees are women (7 out of 11). The three most senior staff Directors are women, the three Deputy Directors are men. Of the 25 key staff profiled on the website, 15 are women. So, yes we can!

It bears emphasising that this check on gender balance is crude. It doesn’t automatically correlate with commitment to equal opportunities, to understanding of patriarchy, or how gender affects so many areas of policy and experience. But it gives an indication and I maintain it matters. It is also a legitimate part of a charity’s accountability to the public to explain and defend the gender balance of its governance and staff. At least the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Kings Fund and IPPR, and to a lesser extent, the IFS and Resolution Foundation, are equipped with a significant presence of women’s lived experience and perspectives in their governance, agenda-setting and policy arms, though the latter two might have further to go.

But the IEA, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society are governed and managed, mostly, by men. So don’t be too surprised if the rights, and distinctive struggles, challenges and dilemmas of half the population don’t get much of a look-in in the policy papers, educational materials and tweets pouring out of these charities. Don’t be too surprised, in short, if their vision of our future turns out to be, in the main, a man’s world, such as they embody in key respects themselves. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that, as other think tanks show. And charities are supposed to be for the public benefit – women and men alike.

Charitable think tanks: if you are reading this, whether or not you are mentioned above, please think carefully whether the gender balance in your governance, policy work and operations is reasonably even. If not, please either explain and justify it, or fix it. And Charity Commission: how about giving them a nudge?




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