Gender equality in non-governmental organisations

A report from Poland’s Institute of Policy Affairs suggests that the belief that women dominate the not-for-profit third sector is not altogether true. The findings show that non-profit organisations do have a high percentage of women employees and volunteers, but men are more likely to be in key management positions. The data also show that negative phenomena such as the ‘glass escalator’ and the ‘sticky floor’ may be a factor in non-governmental organisations.


The findings of a policy paper on equal opportunities for women and men (in Polish) published by Poland’s Institute of Policy Affairs (ISP) highlight the role of women in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The paper is based on data gathered from surveys conducted in 2010 and 2011 by the Klon/Jawor Association and is part of a broader project, Partnership – Equal Chances for Men and Women, implemented by the ISP to address problems of gender inequality in the media, politics, family, labour market and third sector organisations.

A ‘feminised’ sector?

The non-governmental sector is commonly considered as strongly feminised, but this perception is not entirely supported by the available data.

It is certainly true that a higher percentage of women work in the sector overall.

In 2010, women made up 60% of all those working in the sector.

When sport associations were excluded from the figures, the proportion of women employed in the third sector was 70%.

When only workers on temporary contracts as well as permanent contracts were taken into consideration, the proportion of women workers was 62%. According to other source there may be at least four reasons for these figures (Przewłocka, 2012):

  • NGOs often guarantee flexible forms of employment allowing employees to combine work with family life;
  • salaries are lower than in the private sector and women in Poland generally have lower pay expectations than men;
  • the jobs offered are often considered to be ‘feminised’ – jobs such as accounting and office work;
  • work in some types of organisation may be perceived as more socially acceptable for women, such as childcare and caring for elderly.

The findings of the policy paper show that among external volunteers, often referred to as non-members, there were more women than men. This could be connected to the fact that sports associations are very widespread in Poland and tend to be dominated by men, and there is a tradition of taking up membership of a sports association rather than just being an external volunteer.

There certainly seems to be more willingness among women to become an employee of a third sector organisation. However, the share of women among members was only 40%, and women made up only 42% of the management boards of third sector organisations (Table 1).

It should be emphasised that the median share of women’s representation on management boards has improved in comparison to previous years. In 2006 a third of management board positions were filled by women, and the 2010 figures show that this has risen to just over 40%.

Table 1: Women in NGOs


Share of women



Management boards




Employees on permanent and temporary contracts




Notes: Table shows the share of women among different categories of people engaged in NGOs in 2010. It shows median values for every organisation cooperating with each category of people.

Source: Herbst and Przewłocka, 2011

Gender proportions vary according to the fields in which organisations work (Figures 1 and 2).

Men are more prevalent in those sectors operating in the areas of sport, leisure, tourism and hobbies. Women tend to dominate in social assistance and health care. What is striking is that the share of women in management is always lower than among employees, even in organisations with female majority.

Figure 1: Third-sector management by gender, 2010–2011

Figure 1: Third-sector management by gender, 2010–2011

Source: Przewłocka, 2012

Figure 2: Third-sector employment by gender, 2010–2011

Figure 2: Third-sector employment by gender, 2010–2011

Source: Przewłocka, 2012

‘Glass escalator’ and ‘sticky floor’ effects

According to the paper, the imbalance between the number of women in management and among employees suggests that the so-called ‘glass escalator’ effect may be operating. In other words, there may be a tendency to promote men over women. This, however, needs further research to confirm the findings.

A further factor is that women tend to be employed in jobs not demanding any qualifications and with few prospects for promotion, working as cleaning staff, assistants, or office workers. This may indicate that another discriminatory mechanism may be involved – the so-called ‘sticky floor’.

There is no evidence to suggest that there is a glass ceiling effect – the invisible barrier to the promotion of women to the highest positions.


According to the authors of the project, given the framework within which their paper was prepared, third sector organisations are not aware of the problems of discrimination against women. Neither do the organisations appear to be open to discussing the issues.

There may be two reasons for that. It may be that they are convinced that the situation is better than in the private sector and has been constantly improving, and they may also feel that they have more important matters to deals with.

Yet the third sector should pay particular attention to gender equality since it is the area where civic rights are realised.

The weak presence of discourse on that subject seems worrying.


Borowska, M. (2012), Equality of chances of men and women in third sector, ISP, Warsaw.

Herbst, J. and Przewłocka, J. (2011), Basic facts about non-governmental organisations, Klon/Jawor, Warsaw.

Przewłocka, J. (2012), ‘Gdzie panie dominują w III sektorze?’ [Where women dominate in the third sector?], Civicpedia.

Marianna Zieleńska, Institute of Public Affairs

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