Women, Leadership, and the Nonprofit Sector

You don’t have to work for long in the sector to realize that women make up the vast majority of the nonprofit workforce.  What might surprise you, though, is that women do not make up the majority at either the executive or the board level.  Furthermore, those women who are chief executives make considerably less money than their male counterparts, and the gap is getting wider.

Check out these key findings from The White House Project:

  • Women make up 45 percent of the CEOs at nonprofits but only 21 percent of the CEOs at nonprofits with budgets of $25 million or more.
  • Though the vast majority of workers in the nonprofit sector (73 percent) are women, men still hold a majority of top leadership positions and receive significantly higher incomes.
  • Women CEOs of nonprofits have been losing ground relative to men in terms of salaries: Female CEOs now make only 66 percent of male salaries, compared with 71 percent in 2000.
  • Women account for 43 percent of the board seats among all nonprofits but hold only 33 percent of the board seats at nonprofits with incomes of $25 million or more.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy also lifted up data collected by Guidestar demonstrating persisting gap in salaries.

This is certainly disturbing, particularly to those of us who plan to pursue a longterm career in the nonprofit sector.  And while we could spend some time talking about discrimination, systemic sexism and social justice, pointing out the hypocrisy of a sector so long committed to the fight for equity, I found this TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg discussing why we have too few women leaders to be very compelling.

I found this to be quite empowering, as it made me realize the role that my own behavior plays in advancing equity within the nonprofit sector.  So here are some steps I’ll be taking to try to turn the tide on this issue, and I encourage all our female YNPN members to make a similar effort.

  • I will own my abilities and my successes – When things go right at work, it’s the result of more than just blind luck.  I have invested my time and energy into ensuring that different projects are successful.   So when it’s time to take the praise, I will say “thank you” before I begin to talk about the fact that it required the team effort.  Too often I skip over those two words, and while it is certainly important to recognize support received from colleagues, it is foolish to overlook my own above-and-beyond efforts to ensure success.
  • I will keep raising my hand – The world is constantly changing, and as a result our lives and career paths are increasingly unpredictable.  It is quite likely that today’s long-term plans will soon be obsolete, given the shifting conditions of our times.  So when an opportunity presents itself, I will not allow a future possibility to act as roadblock today.  Life is not a straight line but a series of forks in the road; I will not passively be pushed onto one side or the other – I will choose my direction.
  • I will be a strong negotiator – (So this one isn’t directly from the TED talk, but it definitely ties in.)  Too often, women are hesitant to negotiate, and as a result accept a lower salary.  So when I look at new positions, I will ask for more than I think is reasonable, knowing that many of my male counterparts are likely to demand even more. 
    And when I have the opportunity to influence my organization’s hiring practices, I will ask them to review their salary data with a gender lens and make the adjustments necessary to ensure equity.  I once spoke to an HR professional at an institution of higher education who told me that her department would make higher first offers to women, so that by the end of the negotiation men and women in similar positions were receiving similar pay.  If we all own the gap within our own agencies, we can begin to turn the tide as a sector.

So who’s with me?

Published by YNPN Detroit

YNPN Detroit aims to promote next generation leadership among young public sector professionals in Metro Detroit by providing opportunities for professional development, networking, social activities and community involvement.

4 thoughts on “Women, Leadership, and the Nonprofit Sector

  1. Wow, you described my behavior to a tee. I just overhauled our organizational newsletter and when acknowledged by several board members for my work, I felt obligated to list every single contribution, no matter how small, of others in my office. Yes, I had some help, but I led the project. I wrote the bulk of the ariticles, (and the most substantive ones) and I worked with the designer to achieve the new “look.” Why couldn’t I just say “Thank you,” and leave it at that? That’s what my male counterparts would have done. When I secured multiple new grant awards for our NPO, I was like, “Aww, shucks — I just had to tell the story.” Baloney! I’m a great writer. I know how to tell a story. I know how to pitch a program. I answer every funder’s questions truthfully and fully. I push our programs team for measurable outcomes, and I meet deadlines!

    Your insights are spot on, and are applicable to all women, not just “young professionals.” I am with you! I take the pledge to own my abilities and successes! I take the pledge to be a better negotiator.


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