Expert Advice

Nonprofit Technology: Are Nonprofits Biased Against Women In Technology?

| Updated April 6, 2018

Real responses to real-life questions

Deborah Elizabeth Finn, founder of Mission-Based Massachusetts and the Boston Technobabes, shares her response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

Are nonprofits biased against women working in technology positions?

I am a woman technology professional with a bachelor's degree in computer science and I have five years of experience in MySQL, Oracle and Access programming, plus several database onboarding and management projects under my belt.

I was very excited to see a programming/database management position advertised by a local, mid-sized nonprofit. I loved the idea of furthering my career while helping families in need. I applied and was hired for the job. Even though the pay was less that I'd hoped, I was willing to accept a reduced salary for less hours, an opportunity to build my technology skills and a chance to make a difference in my community.

After a year in this position, what I’ve experienced is quite the opposite. While I oversee the accounting and donor software, I am unable to make decisions on purchases, modifications, upgrades or roll-out schedules without direction from my operations vice president. He doesn’t listen to my input, whether for purchasing or technology set up, and he gives me unrealistic budgets and time tables, moving these around, seemingly at random.

I also get all the jobs no one else has the time for or interest in doing. For instance, there was no one to manually build an Excel spreadsheet of potential new donor email addresses, so all of the website scraping and spreadsheet building became my responsibility. I have also recently been assigned all desktop issues for the other employees, to save the organization from hiring another technician.

None of these duties are what I was hired to do. Sometimes, the system administration tasks take up my entire day (“I can’t remember my password!” “My monitor is failing!” “I need a new laptop!” “Can you help me to set up the AV equipment?”)

On one recent occasion, an interesting project was undertaken to create and manage a new and more efficient communications platform. My vice president hired a third party to design and build it, rather than ask if I could take on the project, and now I have the additional job duty to manage these not very expert consultants.

Finally, I have so much to do (without the chance to ever truly make a technology impact) that I am the first one at the office and the last to leave.

I can’t help thinking I am at the bottom of the barrel in my job because I am a woman in tech. I am thinking of quitting, but I am afraid I will end up with the same problem in a future position.

Deborah says ...

It’s important to understand that there is wide variation among individuals, organizations and regions in the nonprofit sector — sexism is not universal or evenly distributed. I have seen a great deal of sexism in the sector, some of which falls on women in technology roles.

In general, I’d say that the advent of social media has been a boon to women in our field, because of the abundance of brilliant women who have written outstanding books and provided superlative training in how nonprofit organizations can use online communications technologies to ensure success in their missions. In other words, we now have plenty of women as role models, mentors and teachers with worldwide reputations in the field of nonprofit technology. It’s not a magic solution, but it does help.

With that said, I have a few suggestions:

  • Organize a local group of women who provide information and communication technology services to nonprofit organizations. Include consultants as well as in-house employees. Meet often and compare notes. This will help to cut down any isolation and enable you to ask for a sanity check. If you don’t know your counterparts at other local organizations, it’s a good idea to ask for help from the Nonprofit Technology Network’s online group for women for women in the field.

  • Make use of one of those “Dress for Success” books for women — but make sure that its recommendations are based on solid research rather than the author’s individual taste. The goal is to dress for total credibility. I regret to say that for many women, “total credibility” means using clothing to send the message “I am an upper middle class professional with an elite education.” In my experience this means dressing in a way that is quite different from what men in nonprofit technology jobs wear, and is also different from what women wear for social occasions. The reason that I regret bringing this up is that some people might — mistakenly — think that I believe that appearance is more important than experience, training, good social skills and ample experience. It’s not. However, if all other things are equal, clothing that conveys you are an upper middle class professional will command more respect for the woman who wears it, and it strikes me that you are not receiving respectful treatment.

  • Engage in this thought experiment: Ask yourself, “What would I do if I were entirely certain that nothing will ever change in the way I am treated at this organization?” And then give serious consideration to whatever thoughts emerge. My experience is that individuals and organizations do change, but they rarely change in ways that we can control or even predict. We cannot count on anything changing in your favor. Therefore, it’s crucial to know what you think and feel about the idea of this situation continuing forever. Fortunately, my other two suggestions, expanding your network and sharpening your professional presentation, will probably help you, regardless of whether you decide to stay or leave.

  • Ponder the advice that the Nonprofit Curmudgeon gave in an article about “How to keep your job and your sanity in the nonprofit sector.” He said, "...many of my rants have two underlying messages: stop whining, and learn to deal with it. However, there are definite limits to stoicism. If you're being bullied or exploited in the workplace, quit."

Good luck!

Now, your take!

Wendy W-T says ... There is no need to take on work that is not what you were hired to do, yet if you don't speak up, others will often ask you to do things that don't make sense. Your job is to stop the action when things are out of alignment and to have a dialogue about what makes the most sense given your role, skills, priorities, and value to the organization. It's your job to catch it as early as you can in any engagement with any person, regardless of gender, and address it right away.

Many times, our own limiting beliefs create the filters for how we see the world, which drives our story. What if it isn’t about gender at all? Perhaps you are becoming aware of what used to be OK, but no longer is? Now that you are aware, you can make a different choice. Use your new awareness to better honor and respect yourself going forward. Taking responsibility for creating your own experience based on the story you tell yourself is an empowering and liberating way to pivot inside and see new choices that feel better for you.

You CAN work in an environment that supports and values you, yet to create that experience, you get need to start with supporting and valuing yourself.

Robert P. says ...While it certainly could be that the letter writer is the victim of sexism, there may be other factors at play here. She says the position is at a “mid-sized” nonprofit, but does not mention how existing staff is allocated amongst job roles. One of the ongoing frustrations with working for “smaller” organizations is that budget and/or staffing limitations can mean that there are simply not enough people to do all the things that need doing. People tend to wear multiple hats and assignments get parceled out in the most convenient (which is NOT to say proper or logical) manner possible. For example, the executive director may be doubling as the chief communications person and the grant writer. Whether he/she has any actual talent for either of these extra tasks often remains an open question.

Similarly, the author did not share whether or not there is any other IT staff at the nonprofit. It could very well be, grandiose titles aside, that she is the ONLY techie there — in which case it’s understandable that she is often called upon to look after tasks that are not exactly “programming/database management.” I am aware of one case at a nationally known nonprofit, where the Director of Technology, whose alleged and official focus was upgrading their web-based presence, spent an almost equal amount of his time fixing other employees’ computer bugs (BTW, HE TOO was usually asked to set up the AV equipment!)

Finally, it could be that her operations manager knows as little about tech as I do about thoracic surgery. In other words, if he is primarily a bureaucratic bean counter (she mentions purchasing, budgets, and time tables) he could truly be unable to see the author’s potential because he does not understand it.

It just could be that she’s working for a bad organization — one too small and too financially limited to operate efficiently in today’s environment. While her operations vice-president might also be a sexist troglodyte, sexism may have nothing to do with her predicament. My suggestion would be that she look for a better outfit to work for, and ASK QUESTIONS about staffing and actual responsibilities before she takes her next job.

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

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