The Nonprofit Gender Gap Still Exists—What We Can Do About It

There’s a big problem in the nonprofit sector, and every sector and industry for that matter. We’re living in 2015, and yet women are still not being treated as equals.

If you’re a woman in a top role, such as Executive Director or CEO, you’ve managed to beat the odds. For that, I applaud you. However, I dream of a world where it isn’t such a big feat. Women should have an equal opportunity to lead.

What I’m not saying is that we need more female leaders just for the sake of having more female leaders. I believe a certain segment of the population (both male and female) is fit to run nonprofits, and conversely some are not suited for the top job. However, women are not getting an equal shot at the opportunity to be an Executive Director or CEO.

As a nonprofit professional, I work in a sector where the vast majority of workers and volunteers are women—75 percent as of 2011. But in top positions, the numbers are much lower as only 45 percent of women held top positions at nonprofit organizations. Almost half would be a great number, if the gender ratio in the industry were equal.

Let’s talk about why this is a problem, and what we should be doing about it.

The Problem Exists Across the Board

A lack of female leadership isn’t just a problem in the nonprofit sector. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, touched on the gender gap issue in her TED talk Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.”

“The problem is this—women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world,” Sandberg said.

We’re making strides, but there is still a long way to go. Last year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy touched on the lack of women in top roles at nonprofits. They found the lack of women leaders wasn’t attributed to a lack of want—of the 650 women who participated in the survey, 57 percent said they aspired to lead a nonprofit. And 62 percent of respondents had more than 10 years of nonprofit experience under their belt.

Even when female CEOs or Executive Directors are at the top, there’s a gender pay gap. According to studies by the American Association of University Women, women are paid less than men in female-dominated, gender-balanced and male-dominated occupations. The nonprofit sector just happens to fall under the female-dominated category.

What We Can Do About it as Women—Sit at the Table

In her TED talk, Sandberg cited multiple reasons for the lack of women leaders, including a lack of willingness to “sit at the table.” Studies have shown that women have the tendency to systematically underestimate their own abilities. For example, Sandberg referred to a study where men tended to contribute success they experienced to themselves. In the same study, women contributed their success to outside factors.

“We’ve got to get women to sit at the table,” Sandberg said.

That means not being afraid to take ownership when we’ve done something. The best advocates for women are themselves, which is where many fall short. We should be standing up and negotiating for what we want, and owning up to our successes. If leadership is what you personally seek, don’t be afraid to own up to your successes.

What We Can Do About it as Society

To close the gender leadership gap, awareness as a society is the first step to making monumental changes. Look at your own organization. Have open dialogue. One approach to help close the gender pay gap is to conduct equal pay audits. That would include mandatory reporting on pay, based on experience and number of years of service.

Something I want readers to know about my stance on the gender gap is that I’m not calling for men to step down from leadership positions. Instead, I’m calling for a world where it’s not uncommon to have just as many female leaders as males—especially in a female-dominated sector.

The bottom line for leadership is a leader should be the best person for the job. But I would argue that with so many tenured females in the industry, there is ample room for more female leaders.

So let’s hear it for the females AND males that are bringing it every day in the nonprofit sector—because gender shouldn’t define our paychecks or our job titles.


Lyndsey Hrabik

Lyndsey is a former editor for Nonprofit Hub and Nonprofit Hub Magazine. She now serves as a guest contributor, writing on topics such as social media, technology, marketing and starting a nonprofit.

May 8, 2015

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