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

3. What can we learn from other sectors?

There is more research, data and other material available on the disabled workforce and disabled leaders in the public and private sectors, and the higher education and creative industries fields. These are described below. Voluntary sector organisations can learn from some of these schemes and experiences; greater collaboration or ways of sharing learning across sectors may help charities understand how best to support the talent in their workforce.

The public sector

The West Midlands Combined Authority did some work in 2018 to better understand the diversity of leadership in public and private sectors in the region. It identified significant gaps in data for both sectors in terms of disabled leaders, as well as a lack of data on sexuality, class and how identities intersected. Nevertheless, it was able to conclude that disabled people were underrepresented in the public and private workforce, both as a whole and in leadership positions. Importantly, the report also explicitly recognised that it is society that disables people by failing to work in a way that allows them to make best use of their capabilities; this recognition at a senior level is a good starting point for thinking about change.

There were some barriers that cut across all groups, such as a lack of self-confidence, exclusion from informal communication networks, stereotypes about roles and abilities, and a lack of mentors and role models. The report also identified specific barriers faced by disabled people, including:

  • Job security
  • Personal development
  • Career prospects
  • Perceived capacity to lead
  • Travel-to-work  difficulties.

While three quarters of workplaces in the West Midlands had adopted a formal equal opportunities policy, just under 30% of these did not mention disability. Policies do not, of course, always translate into action or better systems. However, it is concerning that disabled people are not even considered across this proportion of employers; this suggests a strong need for greater understanding and embedded culture change when thinking about the disabled workforce.(24)

The Civil Service also has its own DELTA (Disability Empowers Leadership Talent) scheme, launched in 2019 to encourage future leaders and create more diverse leadership teams. It seeks to do this by improving the ‘collective visibility of high potential disabled civil servants’, to accelerate career devel- opment and to generate a ‘more diverse and robust pipeline’ for senior roles. It is unclear whether this programme will be evaluated, and whether lessons from it will be shared publicly.(25)

Higher education

The National Association of Disabled Staff Networks represents networks mostly within further and higher education in the UK, although it reports having a small number of public, private and voluntary sector members. While a small organisation, it gathers and represents views from across these networks, providing a collective platform to share experiences and lobby for improvements at a national policy level. Most recently, it has made a number of recommendations for higher education institutions as they begin to move back to working on site, after the COVID-19 lockdown period. Recommendations include ensuring any response is adequately equality impact assessed, instituting a no-detriment policy so that staff who cannot attend in person are not penalised, and continuing to offer a choice to both students and staff to attend lectures or meetings remotely, in a way that is inclusive for disabled people. While specific to the current higher education context, these are important considerations for all organisations.(26)

Research on careers for disabled people in higher education has found that disabled academics and other staff are already involved in formal or informal leadership roles, demonstrating that, in theory, being disabled should not prevent a person from engaging in leadership as a key part of their career. However, it has also found a number of barriers to staying and progressing in these careers. Findings indicated that some participants were already engaged in leadership or aspired to such roles, and reported positive experiences. However, participants across two papers also experienced significant barriers to progression, including:

  • A lack of awareness of equality and diversity among managers and colleagues
  • Inadequate professional development opportunities and the competitive organisational culture of management
  • Management stereotyping or making assumptions about the capabilities, or lack thereof, of disabled people
  • Perceptions of being given less responsibility, or being passed over for opportunities, after disclosing a health condition or disability
  • A lack of disability awareness provision, including insufficient training that didn’t reach senior staff
  • A lack of mentors or disabled role models across the university
  • A lack of acknowledgement or reward for informal leadership roles
  • A culture of long hours and poor work-life balance, with risks to health these carry, exacerbated by a perception among disabled staff that they have to work harder than their non-disabled colleagues to ‘prove’ their ability and counter assumptions about their lack of leadership ability
  • Having to repeatedly ask for and justify a need for support, equipment and reasonable adjustments.(27,28)

Some of these barriers are common to those identified earlier in this report, and may resonate further with disabled staff in the voluntary sector.

Creative industries

There have been a number of schemes to encourage disabled leaders in the arts and cultural industries in recent years. Some of these are run by or associated with charities, but it is a sub-sector that often works in a unique way, with unique challenges.

In 2019, Arts Council England made three grants to organisations supporting D/deaf and disabled cultural leaders at different stages of their careers. Access All Areas have been developing a career development and coaching programme for potential leaders with learning disabilities; the Shape Leadership Development Programme involves training 50 future disabled leaders with skills to succeed in the sector; and Graeae Theatre Company’s National Leadership programme works to connect early and mid-career D/deaf and disabled artists with mentors, networks and pathways between artists and venues. The funding is part of the Transforming Leadership fund, and these three projects, from a total of 18, received £768,512 between them.(29)

It is encouraging to see these projects emerging specifically in response to challenges Arts Council England had identified in its own practice. Its fourth annual report on equality, diversity and the creative case found that disabled workers in the National Portfolio (organisations it funds) only increased from 4% to 5% in 2017/18 compared to the beginning of the project, while the proportion remained at 4% for Major Partner Museums (museums it funds). Disabled people were underrepresented on boards of both of these institutions, and had in fact decreased from 4% to 2% in the case of Major Partner Museums. There had been small increases in the percentages of disabled chief executives (from 5% to 7%), artistic directors (5% to 8%) and chairs (from 5% to 6%) across the lifetime of the portfolio. Within its own workforce, it notes that the proportion of disabled staff (5.6%) had not increased significantly since the previous year, and that disabled staff were more likely to occupy non-managerial roles. The report adds that there is only limited data available on the disabled workforce and governance landscape across its portfolio. Even so, the fact it is taking a proactive role in better understanding diversity across the organisations it funds is one positive step to addressing some significant gaps.(30)

Nevertheless, the challenges faced by disabled artists and arts organisations have been significantly increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. An open letter to the Secretary of State for Culture from over 100 disabled artists and cultural leaders highlighted the way the crisis has ‘magnified inequalities’ for disabled people who may face long term shielding, and loss of both income and visibility as a result. A new organisation, the UK Disability Arts Alliance, has been established to fight for financial support for disabled artists, and for recovery planning that does not exclude creative disabled people.(31)

Research also highlights how the nature of work in creative and cultural industries – project focused and with a precarious employment system – poses challenges to disabled workers (as well as others), who were more likely to lack social capital, to struggle with income insecurities or to access alternative monetary support, and to be unable to work long, unsocial hours, often travelling across the country. One study reports that disabled workers are ‘doubly disabled’, first by barriers to accessing the labour market, and secondly by the labour processes of the UK film and television industry. Another study argues that mentoring and networking schemes designed to extend access to social capital in fact work inside the existing problematic structure, and make any failings to capitalise on opportunities the fault of the individual, rather than a product of structural constraints. More collective work is needed on changing cultures and perceptions of the arts and cultural work as ‘for everyone’.(32,33)

The private sector

There is more research on disabled workers in private sector workplaces than in the voluntary sector, and many of the lessons are likely to be transferrable. Studies cover issues such as condition-specific experiences of work, intersectional discrimination, sickness and productivity, and supporting talent and progression.

A report in 2019 found that while progress had been made at a leadership level on challenges of gender and ethnic diversity, disability was still absent from board level discussions in global business. 56% of global senior executives rarely or never discussed disability in their leadership agendas, and only one in 14 board-level executives identified as disabled (compared to one in seven of the world’s population). 20% of those executives did not feel comfortable telling their colleagues about their disability. Visibility of disabled senior leaders increased the likelihood of conversations about disability inclusion at a senior level; 63% of executives who were aware that a board-level colleague had a disability reported having these discussions, compared to 37% of those not aware of any senior disabled colleagues.(34)

One study in Canada looked at support for disabled workers in the context of the aging workforce and prevalence of age-related chronic illness. This is likely to become an increasing issue for all employers. The research found that, while older employees with arthritis and/or diabetes did report poorer health and employment outcomes that those with no chronic conditions, they were also aware of available policies and practices for making accommodations, and the majority of respondents reported their accommodation needs had been met. The authors suggest that this may relate to the fluctuating nature of their conditions, and employees’ own coping strategies for managing their health and work within existing policies and practices. Part-time workers were less likely to have their needs met, although part time work may also help employees to balance their career and health needs.(35)

Another study highlights the problem of ‘sickness presenteeism’ – or going to work while still ill. It specifically looks at people with rheumatoid arthritis, and distinguishes between two types of presenteeism: voluntary (wanting to work despite ill health) and involuntary (feeling pressured to work when ill). Participants’ motivation to work remained high after their diagnosis and onset of symptoms. Workplace adjustments, including specialist equipment funded through the government’s Access to Work scheme, flexible working and changing duties, helped them to stay working and to work well. This was part of maintaining a sense of ‘normality’, for some. A further study on the experience of people living with Hepatitis C also argues that supportive workplaces with reasonable adjustments allow disabled people and those which chronic conditions to work in sustainable ways.(36) However, access to and approval for reasonable adjustments was variable. In the previous study, two participants with rheumatoid arthritis actually saw their adjustments withdrawn after time, due to ‘coworker’s jealousy’, and a perception that employers in fact wanted these disabled staff members to resign. Some may feel pressured to work where other colleagues hold negative perceptions about levels of sickness, where there was a fear of being disciplined by punitive sick leave policies, or where an organisation’s policies are too inflexible, or not responsive to fluctuating conditions. While voluntary presenteeism, if managed sensitively and appropriately, can be helpful for both employee and employer, involuntary presenteeism can result in extended absence due to exacerbated ill health and a loss of productivity.(37) These are all issues that are likely to be common to charities and voluntary organisations, and highlight the need for flexible policies, a responsive attitude to changing staff needs, and a supportive workplace culture where prejudice is robustly challenged.

‘High-performance work practices’, such as competency testing, performance appraisal, individual performance-related pay, teamworking and functional flexibility (moving employees to other parts of the organisation), have been found in some cases to improve ability, motivation and offer more opportunities to contribute to the business, in turn improving worker wellbeing. Other studies have found that they increase stress and anxiety through an intensification of work. A 2017 paper looks specifically at their impact on disabled people. It found that workplaces that used these practices in combination had fewer disabled employees, apart from where the workplace had a wide range of disability equality practices.(38) A second article looks at levels of pay and at performance-related pay. It similarly finds that disabled employees report lower levels of pay satisfaction than nondisabled employees, and individual performance-related pay exacerbates this. The authors argue that trust both in management and in organisation-wide policies and practices make a difference to levels of satisfaction; when trust in management is high, pay satisfaction rises, and becomes even higher when this is combined with firm-wide disability policies. Where there is a policy but no supportive management or human relations practices, the gap in satisfaction is worsened.(39) This is potentially a useful demonstration of how some policies designed to improve practice, reward performance and support people to build their careers do not work for disabled people (and likely other marginalised groups). While equality practices and policies are an important mitigation here, it is important to design policies for maximising the skills and talent in an organisation that do work across these groups, rather than further marginalising them.

Three studies were identified that look at the intersectional nature of workplace discrimination; all looked at gender and disability. One statistical study used the 2009-14 Life Opportunities Survey to look at the intersection between disability and gender in terms of employment. It found that disabled women were significantly less likely to be employed and more likely to be economically inactive than disabled men, nondisabled women and nondisabled men, and were least likely to work full-time than these groups. They were also less likely to be supervisors than disabled men.(40) A second paper by the same authors, using the same method, added that disabled women’s economic wellbeing improved significantly between 2009 and 2014, but that these improvements did not narrow the gap between disabled women and disabled men, non-disabled men and non-disabled women.(41) One further related study using the same data set looked at the economic wellbeing of people with a hearing impairment or D/deaf people, finding that they had a lower household income, found it harder to make ends meet, would unable to pay an unexpected but necessary expense of £500, and were less likely to work in paid jobs than non-hearing impaired people, even after taking into account other demographic characteristics.(42)

A final study looked at employees with hidden neurological impairments including dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADD/ADHD and Asperger syndrome working in the male-dominated transport industry. It suggests that some features of the workplace, such as task restriction, which have often been seen as gendered practices, can also be seen as ableist. Task restriction can be self-imposed, based on lack of confidence engendered by an unsupportive culture, or imposed by managers who lack faith in a disabled employee’s abilities. The study provides examples of where this has affected career development prospects and social isolation for both disabled women and men. Workplace culture and ‘humour’ posed an additional challenge; some men reported they were reluctant to disclose their disability out of fear of being laughed at, while other neurodivergent colleagues struggled to participate in social conversations, and were mocked because of this. Regular reorganising of teams, which had become a common feature of the industry, meant that disabled staff had to repeatedly rebuild supportive relationships, and repeatedly disclose their disability to new managers.(43) These issues affected both men and women, and were rooted in the interaction between disability and gender, especially constructions of masculinity in this male-dominated industry. Different assumptions are made about disabled women and disabled men, and both can have a significant negative impact on access to opportunities and career development. It is important, again, that employers – including in the voluntary sector – recognise when these stereotypes are coming into play, and robustly tackle resulting discrimination.

While the COVID-19 crisis has put severe pressure on disabled people and the services that support them, it has also demonstrated that alternative ways of working are possible, and also desirable. Alternatives such as working from home and digital meeting places do need to be done in a way that works for disabled people, rather than only their non-disabled colleagues. This means thinking about meeting timings and length, having regular breaks and maintaining supportive line management relationships. Some of the lessons and findings from the previous research across different sectors begin to point the way to some issues faced by disabled employees, and potential solutions available. As the next section will discuss, there are already a number of schemes and programmes available for supporting disabled leaders and future leaders. However, more work will need to be done to better understand experiences and needs in charities and voluntary organisations. This project will begin to fill some of that gap.

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