Portraits of Four women of different nationalities and cultures standing together. The concept of gender equality and of the female empowerment movement
Portraits of Four women of different nationalities and cultures standing together. The concept of gender equality and of the female empowerment movement. Credit: Ponomariova_Maria

Unleashing the power of female leadership: A catalyst for change in the third sector

Let your actions speak louder than your words. As a Muslim woman, I have always relished engaging in important issues such as discrimination and Islamophobia.

I’ve championed dialogue across faith and cultural lines, even playing a role in leading nationwide awareness campaigns to open conversations around my faith community. But when it came to gender justice and equality, I had taken a different approach, rationalising that my actions, as a woman, could speak for themselves.

However, embarking on my journey as the first female CEO of a major Muslim-led British charity, I have come to realise the significance of proactive and vocal engagement in this area. The weight of responsibility as a female leader brings an additional level of pressure. Pressure that men may empathise with but never truly comprehend. It reminds me of the time I decided to wear a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. Suddenly, I became an ambassador of Islam overnight, having to navigate my faith and identity amidst the hostile post-9/11 and 7/7 climate that had put visible Muslims like me under apublic spotlight. While the stares, taunts and bullying forced me to question my choice, the scrutiny ultimately propelled me into a life of public service, initially as a teacher and now, as a professional humanitarian.

My relationship, however, with gender justice has evolved with my leadership at Penny Appeal and my gratitude goes first to the vision and inclusive approach of our esteemed Board, one of the most diverse in the sector. I am in my role because of them. Penny Appeal has always been a disruptor and trailblazing charity, and this culture starts from the top. Their belief in leveraging the power of diversity, in the most critical and challenging times, has led us to this pivotal moment for both the organisation and for me, personally.

As custodians of the transformative power of small change, we believe that even the smallest actions can create monumental differences. To fully unleash this potential, we must cultivate a sense of belonging where the gifts and differences of others find a voice.

In the UK, the third sector has made significant progress in advancing gender equality. However, the gender gap persists. Addressing it is not about equality for equality’s sake but rather about harnessing the immense value that female leaders bring to our organisations.

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Female leaders offer diverse perspectives, innovative thinking, and a unique set of experiences and insights. Many charities in our current climate are facing an existential threat. There is a marked shift in trust in the sector, and the pandemic, coupled with a cost of living crisis means we face unprecedented challenges. Perhaps the leadership to steer us out of these uncharted waters needs to be different to the leadership that found us here. Throughout my career, I have met countless talented, passionate, and visionary women, but they seldom have a platform to showcase their gifts. Undoubtedly, women leaders possess the compassion, dedication, and resilience that our sector is in desperate need for.

Of course, female leadership extends beyond the boardroom, reverberating within communities and homes. As Malcolm X once stated, “To educate a man is to educate an individual, but to educate a woman is to educate a whole nation.” Neglecting the well-being of women comes at a cost to all of us. As third-sector professionals, you understand all too well how, without exception, the well-being of women and girls is absolutely integral to the well-being of society as a whole.

Navigating the space of diversity, inclusion, and gender justice can be challenging, especially amidst toxic public debate on the topic. However, staying silent is not an option. I regret the times I chose silence, as we all suffer when the voices of women are not given the platforms they deserve.

At Penny Appeal, our charity is built on the vision of transforming small change into a big difference, so I invite you to consider the small changes you can make within your own organisations to foster female leadership and nurture talent. These changes need not be so huge, but undoubtedly will make a significant impact on the success and effectiveness of your work.

Together, we can amplify the voices that deserve to be heard, challenge the status quo, and unlock a wellspring of untapped potential, fuelling innovation, compassion, and resilience within our organisations.

Actions may speak louder than words but never underestimate the power of words to be the catalysts for change. As leaders in the third-sector, we carry immense responsibility and this can never be fulfilled in an environment where female leadership fails to thrive.

It is my hope, in my role as CEO, to be able to raise my voice to rewrite the narrative, redefine what we think leadership looks like, and ultimately, ignite a movement that will shape the third-sector and beyond.


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