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Third sector, the backbone of society in difficult times

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The third sector is one of the foundations that sustain our societies. Always operating at the margins, it helps hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise suffer much more acutely from the threats of poverty, hunger, lack of opportunities, and exclusion. And while this reality is permanent, it is especially intense in times of difficulty.

Thinking back to the coronavirus era, readers will likely recall lockdowns, restrictions on seeing loved ones, and remote working. But where could those who lived in overcrowded houses, or those who didn’t even have a home, go to isolate themselves? What would people who have never owned a computer think when everyone started talking about remote working? How could families feed themselves when closures wiped out their meager, often informal, incomes? Many people were forced to turn to third-sector organizations in the wake of a pandemic that, as is often the case in times of crisis, has exacerbated inequalities.

This is one of the conclusions reached at the 6th edition of the Conversations for Leadership held by Fundación MAPFRE, where three leading Spanish figures analyzed the role of women in the third sector: Natalia Peiro, secretary-general of Caritas Spain; Virginia Carcedo, deputy director of Training, Employment, and Transformation at Fundación ONCE; and Carmen García de Andrés, president of Fundación Tomillo. In addition to highlighting the work done over the last year and a half, all three agree that there is still a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

The third sector in Spain is made up of some 28,000 organizations, including those more closely linked to aid, such as foundations, associations, and NGOs, and those belonging to the social economy, a little-known field comprising cooperatives, employee-owned companies, mutual societies, special employment centers, and insertion companies. Between them, they accounted for 1.45% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) last year, and 3% of all employment in Spain, and their direct aid amounted to 42 million euros. While these figures reveal the organizations’ significant impact, they cannot be explained without the more than one million volunteers who worked on their behalf and made their missions possible.

Third sector and women

Fifty-two percent of volunteers are women, a proportion that rises to 57% in the case of those employed in the sector. But the predominance of women in terms of numbers does not always translate into positions of leadership; women hold the majority of lower-level jobs but find it difficult to gain access to management positions. Cáritas is a good example of this situation. Around 70% of its employees and volunteers are women. The organization conducted a report recently on decision-making during the pandemic, and it found that most decisions were made on the front line in centers and towns throughout Spain, where more experienced women led small teams. The role of secretary-general, however, was dominated by men until 2017 when Natalia Peiro became the first woman to hold that position.

A similar phenomenon can be found at Fundación ONCE. Great strides have been made in equality, and women now account for 50% of management positions at the organization. Nevertheless, women account for 60% of middle management positions and 64% of the total workforce.

In order to make the leap to the top of an organization, woman usually have to work harder, and they face other barriers. A woman with a disability, or from a rural background, will encounter many more obstacles in her path. Social and external barriers greatly limit her ability to develop a career. Men are assumed to have a capacity and a desire for leadership, while a woman who is from a village, a different country or has a disability is automatically ruled out by the people around her. Families and relatives play a role in these limitations. Without an environment that supports women’s talent, it is difficult for women to take the first step.

But external factors are not the only ones that get in the way of many female workers. As in other sectors, barriers are found in the education, mindset, and social conventions that women themselves acquire, and it is their self-perception that may prevent them from seeking career advancement. In this regard, success stories are fundamental, and seeing women in leadership positions is an incentive and, perhaps, the definitive push for a woman to advance and gain visibility and responsibilities.

The third sector has proven once again in this crisis to be leading the charge in supporting the most vulnerable, and while it still has an outstanding debt with women, it has seen major improvements in this regard. In a sector where women have been in the majority for years and where they are beginning to take the lead, organizations hope that their good practices can permeate the rest of society so that inclusion and equality are present in all types of activities and the hurdles that separate women from the social economy are gradually removed.