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Gender diversity issues loom large in the nonprofit sector

Issues of gender diversity and workplace equality have become mainstream in the Western world.

For decades it seemed the women's movement was strictly focused on upward mobility, on a woman's right and determination to do everything a man can do. Now that women have broken so many barriers to that end, the more complex issues of parental leave, childcare, work-life balance, gender discrimination and equal pay are getting the serious attention they deserve.

The issues loom particularly large in the nonprofit sector. Although women are visible and numerous in the nonprofit workforce, there's a big hill to climb when it comes to female leadership and equal pay.

The sobering truth

The majority of the nonprofit workforce — more than 75 percent in some U.S. sectors — is female. Still, when it comes to the highest rung of the ladder at big-budget organizations, women are much more scarce.

In 2015, GuideStar found that of U.S. nonprofits with annual budgets more than $50 million, just 18 percent had a female CEO. In the U.K.'s top 50 fundraising charities by income, just 30% have female chief executives and only 36% of trustees are women. A 2015 article in the Nonprofit Quarterly describes the dynamic like this: "The richer the organization, the less gender diversified its leadership."

A 2014 poll of 650 American women who work at nonprofits — conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and New York University's George H. Heyman, Jr. Program for Philanthropy and Fundraising — found that 44 percent believed their organization favored men over equally qualified women for leadership positions. In addition, women who worked at a nonprofit with $25 million or more in assets believed the organization put more effort into making connections with influential and wealthy men in the community than it did their female counterparts.

And there's more bad news. When women do get to the top of the heap, they're often paid less than their male peers. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that female CEOs at nonprofits with budgets between $2.5 and $5 million are paid 23 percent less than males in the same position. A 2015 Third Sector article reports that the average pay for a female director in the U.K. charity sector is £60,093, compared with £71,570 for men.

The contributing factors

How does this happen, especially in a field where so much attention is paid to justice, equality, and improving the lives of individuals and communities? It may come down to the age-old observation that people like people who remind them of themselves. This behavior falls into play not just when the members of a board are looking to make new hires, but also when they're making connections to powerful donors.

If men make more money and have larger networks and perceived influence in the community, they're more likely to be approached to join a board of directors. This may be especially true for larger nonprofits with a potentially significant amount of money at stake. The problem is the cycle that this sort of access generates.

The men who serve on these boards gain such impressive experience in the nonprofit world that they're asked to serve again and again. As a result, females who may be just as qualified are left out of sight and out of mind — which leads to underrepresentation on boards and as leaders of larger nonprofits.

Expectations for women

The same 2014 poll conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the George H. Heyman, Jr. Program for Philanthropy and Fundraising found that 57 percent of female nonprofit leaders would like to become a CEO someday. Those women who didn't want the top job typically cited long hours and stress as the reason. With men having forged the path to these roles and creating the template for how work is supposed to be conducted, women must pioneer their own conventions of leadership — making their mark on the world by balancing career ambitions and championing beloved causes.

The power of female leadership

According to a study by a top consulting firm that interviews millions of job applicants for thousands of companies across the world, female leaders were found to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts.

Ultimately, we shouldn't be discouraged by dismal data points. Instead, we must take a hard look at the current role of women in the nonprofit workplace. Compelling research suggests that progressive family policies can improve employee productivity and retention rates. Meaningful support of women in nonprofit leadership roles — and continued promotion of the younger women in their orbit — may lead to an overhaul of boardrooms, executive suites and everyday workplaces.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



National Partnership for Women & Families: Paid family and medical leave: Good for business (2015)

The Guardian: Be confident, be bold: 10 tips from female charity leaders by Anna Isaac (2015)

Third Sector: The gender pay gap in charities is worse than the national average for all sectors by Liam Kay (2015)

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Lack of women in top roles hinders nonprofits, female nonprofit workers say by Maria Di Mento (2014)

Clore Social Leadership: Close to parity: Challenging the voluntary sector to smash the glass ceiling by Rowena Lewis (2012)

Nonprofit Hub: The nonprofit gender gap still exists — what we can do about it by Lyndsey Hrabik

Nonprofit Law Blog: Women leaders still make less than their male counterparts ... even in the nonprofit sector by Erin Bradrick (2015)

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Women nonprofit leaders still make less than men, survey finds by Eden Stiffman (2015)

Nonprofit Quarterly: Women in power, or — not so much: Gender in the nonprofit sector by Erin Lamb (2015)

Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Detroit: Women, leadership, and the nonprofit sector (2011)



Vice president of communications at Texas Exes