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Accessing Leadership: supporting disabled leaders and future leaders in the voluntary sector – Part one: Scoping Review

2. What do we know about disabled leaders in the voluntary sector?

When we are thinking about leadership, we can think about both current and future leaders. This section will look first at what we know about the disabled workforce overall, what we can tell about the disabled workforce in the voluntary sector including future and potential leaders, and then at leaders today.

There is a significant research gap on disabled leaders overall, and even less on disabled leaders in the voluntary sector. A lot of research on work and disabled people focuses on how they can be supported to enter employment, rather than necessarily sustain it or advance their careers. The next stage of this project, gathering the views of disabled people in the voluntary sector, will be an important contribution to this area, but larger scale projects will be necessary to better understand the career journeys, success factors and barriers for disabled leaders in our sector.

The disabled workforce overall

The number of disabled people in employment has increased overall since 2013, when comparable measures began. This might be due to policy initiatives to encourage disabled people into work and a less generous and more restricted benefits regime, as well as population factors such as an increase in the working-aged population, an increase in prevalence of disability in that population, and a rising employment rate overall. 4.4 million disabled people were in employment in the last quarter of 2019 – a little over half of the total population of 8.1 million working aged disabled adults.

Although it has fallen slightly since 2013, the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people was still around 28% in 2019. Disabled people were twice as likely to move out of work than non-disabled people. The employment rate gap was highest for people aged 50-64, and disabled people in this group were also twice as likely to have moved out of work than non-disabled people of the same age. This age group accounted for more than four in 10 of the working-aged disabled population overall. Disabled men and women had similar employment rates, but the employment gap was bigger between disabled men and non-disabled men compared to women.

The distribution of disabled people working in different industries in the UK was broadly the same as for non-disabled people in 2018/19, with human health and social work, retail and education in the top three employers. These accounted for 41% of the disabled workforce. However, disabled people were less likely to work in higher-skilled occupations than non-disabled colleagues. Disabled people were also more likely to be in part time work (34%) compared to non-disabled workers (23%).(14,15)

There are some statistics on rates of pay for disabled staff compared to their non-disabled colleagues. The TUC reported, based on labour force survey statistics, that the disability pay gap was 15.5% in 2018/19. This effectively means that disabled employees get eight weeks less pay than non-disabled employees; on average, disabled workers earned £1.65 per hour less, or £3,000 per year, than non-disabled workers. The ONS, using weighted earnings data from the Annual Population Survey, found that the pay gap across the UK was 12.2% for disabled people in 2018; London (which publishes its own disability pay gap data) had the widest gap at 15.3%, and Scotland the narrowest at 8.3%. It also found that around a quarter of this difference could be accounted for by lower paid occupations and lower levels of qualification among disabled workers.(14,16)

The ONS data found that the disability pay gap was wider for men than for women. This is consistent with a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the disability pay gap. The report also looked at the intersection of disability and ethnicity, finding that where ethnic pay gaps exist, they are exacerbated by disability. However, the disability pay gap does not, on the whole, vary by ethnicity.

Disabled Bangladeshi and Pakistani men were found to have particularly high pay gaps of 56% and 36% respectively, while disabled Black African men had a gap of 34% compared to White British non-disabled men. Disabled women from different ethnicities did not have significant differences in pay gaps.(17)

The voluntary sector disabled workforce

While employment statistics used here are broken down by industry, they are not broken down by sector, so we do not know how the disability employment rate compares between the voluntary, private and public sectors. Labour market statistics do report on employment in public compared to private sectors, but not on rates of disability within those figures. We do know, however, that while 20% of the organisations signed up to the Disability Confident employment accreditation scheme (described in more detail in section 4) are voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises, this only represents around 2% of the sector as a whole.(18)

The National Council for Voluntary Service (NCVO) uses data from the Labour Force Survey to estimate rates of voluntary sector employment overall. However, while it reports on gender, age and ethnicity of the workforce, it does not report any data, or make any comment, on the disabled voluntary sector workforce.(19) This represents a significant gap in our knowledge, and one that voluntary sector infrastructure bodies should be filling, either through further analysis of available data, or lobbying for better data. At the very least, this gap should be acknowledged and explained.

Reporting on the disabled workforce

Some organisations include information about the diversity of their workforce in their annual reports; most include a statement on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and many present gender pay gap information. Annual reports are a way for an organisation to publicly celebrate its work and achievements, but also offer a key opportunity for transparency. This should include issues raised by workforce data and workplace culture. For those that work with and for disabled people, this also offers a good opportunity to champion and model good employment practice.

We looked at the most recent annual reports of the top 25 largest charities by latest reported income to see if they included information about their disabled employees. This included ‘general charities’, according to NCVO’s definition, excluding organisations such as universities, religious organisations and grant-making foundations. 10 organisations’ annual reports did not mention disabled staff at all. 15 did, but of these six were limited references to legal responsibilities or general commitments. A number published data on their workforce by pay grade, gender, ethnicity and nationality, but only two reported any statistics on their disabled workforce. Of those who did not mention disabled staff, only one was not a member of the Disability Confident employment scheme; six were committed, two were employers and one was a leader. There was almost no reference to disabled leaders or career progression for disabled employees. While annual reports clearly do not cover every aspect of charities’ business or necessarily translate into positive practice, and while these charities do not represent the whole sector, it is nevertheless disappointing to see a lack of explicit consideration of disabled employees in these sector leaders.

There were some good examples of charities considering or reporting on their disabled workforce. A number stated they had representative staff networks for disabled staff members, and some mentioned that supporting disabled workers featured in their EDI strategies, including monitoring through key performance indicators (KPIs).

Three organisations had more substantial sections or references to the needs of disabled workers. Mencap, which has made it a policy to directly employ people with a learning disability within the organisation, has a section on employment of people with a disability, including specific data on the size of its disabled workforce. This includes 367 staff with a declared disability, including 176 with a learning disability. The organisation has a staff inclusion group for colleagues with a learning disability. It also recognises challenges in increasing the percentage of disabled staff employed, and the uneven distribution around business areas.

St. Andrew’s Healthcare does not have a specific section on disabled staff, but it does have a disabled staff support network, and expresses commitment to inclusion across different populations throughout its report. It also includes a quote from the Executive HR Director about disclosing his own disability, modelling openness and support at a senior level.

Finally, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) reports on its inclusion and diversity statement and staff network for disability, but it also reports on some actions taken as a result of feedback from this network. The organisation worked with its disability network, the Inclusion and Diversity Manager and colleagues in HR to develop a Passport to Wellbeing, a document designed to ‘smooth the path for any employee with a specific condition or disability by enabling constructive conversations with their line manager’. This is a potentially useful way for other charities to ensure managers have the skills and confidence to have appropriate conversations about staff needs, and for staff to feel confident and supported when discussing them. While it does not report on it in the annual report, the internal staff survey includes questions on protected characteristics, and an inclusion and diversity working group has conducted a baseline diversity survey to better understand the nature of its workforce, and how it might change over coming years.

Scope, a high-profile disability charity, does not feature on this list, but it has recently begun some substantial work on better understanding its own disabled workforce, as stated in its latest annual report. Its first dedicated report on this was published in 2019, including data from staff surveys as well as HR monitoring, recognising that not all disabled staff will feel comfortable disclosing their disability to their employer. While disabled staff, representing 17% of the organisation’s workforce, were more likely to say they felt appreciated and received praise than non-disabled colleagues (67% compared to 60%), a number of areas for improvement were identified. This included improving lower than desired levels of satisfaction with reasonable adjustments, where made, and high reported stress levels across the whole workforce. A quarter of employees who identified as disabled had not shared information about their disability at work, and just under 30% did not feel they were treated with fairness and respect. Scope lists some areas for action in response to its findings, and also commits to improving the information it has on its disabled workforce. This includes publishing information on pay, workplace adjustments, and length of time of employment for disabled staff, as an important measure of staff retention rates.(20)

The examples above are mixed in the extent to which they engage with the nature, shape and issues faced by their disabled workforce. Large charities in particular can lead the way on better data collection, reporting and identifying the needs of their disabled staff. Disabled staff networks  potentially provide a space for peer support and collective action where necessary, but the organisation as a whole needs to proactively work with them to create strategies and tools for ensuring the right support is in place. Disabled workers need to be included in EDI strategies, and these need to be practical documents that go beyond stating legal requirements. Organisations must consider recruitment practices and the size of the disabled workforce, but also the shape of it; are disabled people able to access career development opportunities, are they in management and leadership positions or fairly considered for promotion opportunities, and once employed do they stay at the organisation for a comparable length of time to their non-disabled colleagues? At the moment, many of the largest charities in England do not appear to be addressing these questions, or sharing the ways they are doing so with the public.

Disabled leaders in the voluntary sector

As stated, there is very little research on disabled leaders in the voluntary sector. This is a gap that this project intends to begin to address. During our next stage we will talk to disabled leaders from disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), and from other organisations within the sector. There would also be significant value in a wider survey of disabled employees and leaders, both those who have disclosed this to their employer and those who have not, to better understand experiences of working in charities and voluntary organisations.

NCVO’s 2019 review of the voluntary sector workforce as a whole did not identify data or other research on disabled voluntary sector staff and skills. However, it did highlight that a high bar of expected qualifications for staff may have a negative impact on disabled people, who are less likely to engage in higher education than the population as a whole.(21) This problem may become entrenched as people try to move up the career ladder, but further research is needed to more fully understand this relationship.

There are some lessons to be learnt from other countries. A report by Zara Todd, one of the co-authors of this research, on leadership in disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) in Australia and New Zealand found there were a number of key features present in organisations that had been successful in cultivating leadership, including:

  • being open to new people and ideas
  • creating opportunities where there are mixed levels of experience and where learning from each other is promoted
  • mentoring
  • giving people space to talk about their impairment experience
  • consistently providing development opportunities
  • seeing engagement and development as a long-term process
  • expecting inclusion.

Todd’s research looked at leadership within DPOs and the disability sector. It may be that there are leadership structures and models that look different within these relatively small, user-led organisations, compared to other types of organisations in the sector. Indeed, one research paper noted the tension, or ‘double-bind’, between leadership in DPOs – which involves wielding power – and the need for member or grassroots participation and active involvement – which involves handing power over. This requires DPO leaders to hold two sets of competencies that are sometimes at odds.(22) The next stage of this project will explore leadership experiences in DPOs in more detail.

It is important to acknowledge and celebrate disability leadership, where possible. The Shaw Trust attempts to meet this demand through its Power 100 list of the most influential disabled people in the UK. Showcasing disabled leaders across different sectors and industries, it shows what disabled leadership can look like, and offers role models for those just starting their careers. There is a section for education and the public and third sectors, featuring 25 leaders across different areas.(23) However, those who work for and with charities or voluntary organisations all do so within the disability sector. The work they do is extremely important, and their achievements significant, but future and potential disabled leaders need role models, and mentors, from across the voluntary sector, to show them models for career development in whatever area they are passionate about. It is also noticeable that in this category (although not the list as a whole), all of the individuals appear to be white. This may reflect additional struggles faced by Black or Asian disabled people, and those from other minoritised communities, to access the same leadership opportunities as their white colleagues, or it may be that the successes of people from these communities are less visible (or less noticed). Whatever the reason, it is important to champion, celebrate and promote the achievements of these groups too, so that Black, Asian and other multiply-marginalised disabled people are able to see people who look and identify like them in these roles, and aspire to the same for themselves.

This report is very much a starting point for exploring and understanding issues faced by disabled voluntary sector leaders and future leaders. There is a clear need to develop this further, given the lack of data on the voluntary sector disabled workforce. There are, nevertheless, a number of existing schemes and resources that recognise some of the challenges disabled employees face, and seek to nurture their leadership talent. The following section explores these.

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