Why Women Don’t Get Ahead at Nonprofits

Inequities in nonprofit pay and leadership opportunities are subtle and entrenched. The pandemic could make things worse — or be a chance for real change.


Karen had been working at a human-services nonprofit for a decade when she accidentally stumbled on a co-worker’s personal data stored on the group’s shared server. There were pay stubs, mortgage and retirement-account statements, his entire financial picture was laid out before her. And she says it was nothing like her own.

At the time, Karen, who asked that we use only her first name and not identify her employer so she could speak freely, was a director overseeing employees who brought in half the group’s revenue. She was earning roughly $50,000 a year and had to work nights and weekends as a tutor and consultant to pay the tuition for the master’s degree she was pursuing.

According to the pay stubs she found, her male co-worker, who was also a director but had less oversight responsibility, made $10,000 a year more than she did — about a 20 percent difference. “Once I started looking at the numbers, it was heartbreaking,” she says. “At the end of the day, they didn’t treat us equally.”

She thought back to all the times that their shared supervisor had made her feel guilty about what he claimed was her high salary. All the feelings she had that the workplace run by a man for 20 years was a boys club, that she was not taken seriously, were suddenly confirmed. When she talked to another supervisor about the huge salary discrepancy, she was told that the man had a family to support.

“It makes you question everything that happens, everything that I had spent years working on,” she says. “I needed a major change because finding that out was so devastating.” That was in 2010. Desperate to leave, she took another nonprofit job that paid even less, setting her back further financially.

Karen’s experience is not unusual. Despite nonprofits’ noble aims to make the world a better place, study after study finds that women in the charitable world are consistently paid less than men.

Women CEOs at nonprofits earn 75 percent of what men do, according to Candid’s “2020 Nonprofit Compensation Report,” which is based on informational tax returns from more than 100,000 organizations. For fundraisers, the difference is about 10 percent. In Alaska, women who work at nonprofits earn about 79 percent of what men earn. In New Jersey, women chief financial officers make 38 percent less than their male counterparts.

Recent efforts have helped to reduce the pay gap — at nonprofits and elsewhere. Laws in about a dozen states that prohibit employers from asking job candidates about their salary histories have proven effective. An increasing number of nonprofits are including salary ranges in job postings — a simple step that also boosts pay equity.

But lower pay is just one of the many ways that women are treated inequitably at nonprofits. About 70 percent of nonprofit employees are women, yet they do not rise to leadership in the same proportion as men do. Women make up about 60 percent of the leaders of small nonprofits. They account for only a quarter of the leaders of the largest groups. And at least one study shows that women of color face even greater pay gaps and more obstacles to career advancement than white women.

Women’s smaller salaries affect more than pay checks. They lower retirement, Social Security, and even unemployment. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated many nonprofits, may well be exacerbating the inequities. Since March, women in all parts of the economy lost 5.3 million jobs compared with the 4.6 million jobs men lost. About 1 million nonprofit jobs have been lost since February. Because nearly three-quarters of nonprofit employees are women, they have borne the brunt of those losses.

Many low-paying nonprofit jobs, such as teaching assistant and food-service worker, cannot be done at home, and women are more likely than men to hold such jobs. When Covid hit, many women in those jobs were laid off.

What’s more, some women have felt compelled to leave their jobs because school and day care centers are closed, and in many households, child care continues to fall largely to mothers. The child-care dilemma can also be seen in career advancement for women. Some have passed up promotion opportunities because they can’t take on a heavier workload.

All those factors mean that the share of women working is at its lowest point since 1987, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor statistics by Time’s Up, a nonprofit that advocates for workplaces that are free of harassment and discrimination.

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” says Elizabeth Barajas-Román, CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, a coalition of more than 100 funds that raise money to support women’s causes.

Many nonprofits are strapped for cash and face overwhelming demand. Experts fear that even when the economy recovers and women return to work, pay gaps will widen and women will face more career setbacks.

The nonprofit world is at a crossroads, says Tina Tchen, CEO of Time’s Up. The pandemic has created an opportunity for the field to recognize and address the gender gaps and fault lines the pandemic has exposed in diversity and inclusion. “We can double down on our efforts to address them and build a more equitable society,” says Tchen, who was executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls in the Obama administration. “Or we can go in the other direction, in which the inequality gaps just grow and the separation between the multiple communities in our country grows.”

‘Very Stubborn’

There is no simple reason why women are paid less than men in the nonprofit world. Nonprofits and foundations have tried to remedy the problem for decades, but improvements have been painfully slow. For example, the gender pay gap for CEOs at groups with budgets of more than $50 million has fallen from 25 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2018. It is moving in a more equitable direction, but as those numbers show, the incremental change has put only a dent in the problem.

“I’ve been dealing with this [gender pay equity] for a very long time. It’s very subtle. It’s very stubborn,” says Gayle Brandel, who 25 years ago started PNP Staffing Group, a recruiting firm for nonprofits. She works to ensure that women are paid equally at the employers she represents, she says, but salary discrepancies “tend to not be talked about because it’s a very uncomfortable discussion.”

Some studies show pay disparities between women and men across nearly all groups and positions. In Alaska, the Foraker Group, a consultancy for nonprofits, collaborated with the state Department of Labor to analyze government data on compensation at nonprofits and found that women are paid less than men in eight of nine job categories, including CEO, financial manager, and HR manager. In one instance, women earned 65 percent of what men did in exactly the same role.

“Sadly, the pay gaps are everywhere,” says Kimberly Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women, which advocates for fair pay and equal economic opportunity for women. “They’re systemic and structural issues.”

But others have found a more nuanced picture: Competition for employees may play a key role. A 2012 study examined five years of U.S. Census Bureau data on pay for 4.3 million workers, 400,000 of whom worked at nonprofits. The study found the greatest salary discrepancies between men and women were at the nonprofits that competed against for-profit companies, such as health care organizations or groups that provided consulting. Pay gaps at charities that lacked for-profit competition, like human-services groups, were smaller.

That may be because when those nonprofits hire a male employee, they need to pay more than they would pay a woman to persuade him to take the job. Those men are more highly paid than women at competing for-profit firms, where both pay and the gender pay gap are higher, says the study’s co-author, Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, an associate professor of public administration at George Washington University. The organizations do not need to pay women more because for-profit firms pay women so much less than men. In this way, the for-profit pay gap is being reflected into nonprofits. Johnson says this takes place most often at large nonprofits — groups that are most often run by men — which already have the largest executive pay gaps.

Low overall nonprofit pay may be another culprit, according to Brandel. Charities are notorious for paying salaries that are lower than they are in other professions and getting their work done on thin budgets. When small groups offer substandard salaries, women and minorities are more likely to take the low-paying positions than white men, Brandel says, something that can lock them into lower wages for years.

Pay inequity does not end with the paycheck. It ripples through every aspect of women’s financial lives. It affects how much a woman can put into her retirement account and how much the employers add when they match it. It affects Social Security payments after retirement and even the amount she receives for unemployment insurance. The differences are so pronounced over time that, on average, single women in America have 32 percent of the wealth of single men, according to a 2017 report, “Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap.”

Women are generally unaware that they are being paid less than their male colleagues since people generally don’t discuss their salaries. When they do find out and try to do something about it, they often feel like they’re punished for asking to be treated fairly.

Melissa, a fundraiser at a state university where employees’ salaries are public, discovered that a co-worker with a similar job earned $8,000 a year more — despite having fewer areas of responsibility and not having the master’s degree that she did. She says that when she brought it to her supervisor’s attention, the issue was slowly assessed. In the meantime, she felt sidelined at work and branded as a troublemaker. About six months later, her salary was increased to the same level as her male colleague, but she wasn’t given any back pay.

“It’s hard to fundraise for an organization where you’re putting your heart and soul in something and you are, like, ‘Thank you for treating me fairly,’” she says. “It was very, very demoralizing.”

Few Women at the Top

Lower pay isn’t the only obstacle women face. They’re also more likely to hold lower-paying positions within an organization and less likely to ascend into leadership roles than men.

2017 survey of 342 New England nonprofits by TSNE MissionWorks found that 69 percent of people in the lowest-paid nonprofit positions were women, but they were only 55 percent of those in the highest-paying jobs. Women are more likely than men to be in poorly paid direct social-services, home-care, teaching assistant, retail, and food-service roles than men.

“If you go into a typical nonprofit organization, you see all women. But if you go to the boardroom, if you go to the executive level, you see fewer women,” says Young-joo Lee, director of the master’s program in nonprofit management at the University of Central Florida. “It is harder to fix because it’s too embedded in the organizational practices and prevailing gender stereotypes.”

The only place where women consistently rise to leadership positions is at small nonprofits. According to Candid’s report, roughly six out of 10 CEOs of organizations with budgets of $1 million or less are women. At larger groups, women’s leadership starts to fall. Women account for just 25 percent of CEOs at groups with budgets of $50 million or more. The Chronicle’s own analysis found a similar trend. Women lead only 28 of the country’s 100 largest charities.

Women’s lower rates of leadership at large organizations is so predictable, Lee’s research found, that for each additional million dollars in annual revenue, a nonprofit is 0.2 percent less likely to hire a woman as its CEO.

‘This Is About Bias’

Talking about personal experiences with the gender pay gap and obstacles to advancement is a sensitive issue for women in the nonprofit world. Many of the women the Chronicle spoke with for this story asked to be identified by their first names and without naming the organizations where they work. They feared going public with their stories could harm their careers.

The Chronicle found many of the women whose stories appear in this article through recommendations and outreach by experts who focus on women’s pay and leadership at nonprofits. None of the women recommended one another. The Chronicle verified their employment history through online searches, but the women asked that their employers not be contacted. While they don’t know one another, there are patterns in the stories they shared — and the frustration they feel at being treated unfairly while doing work they care about deeply.

Adriana, for example, a senior manager and fundraiser at a national nonprofit, has experienced unequal pay and treatment at jobs on the East and West coasts throughout her career. At one workplace, she was prohibited from even applying for a promotion.

At a past job, organization leaders asked her to work with an outside consultant to develop a new job description for her supervisor’s job after that person was let go. Adriana filled the role informally for six months. Then a recruiter reached out to see if she planned to apply for the job. She had no idea it had even been posted.

When she asked about the position, she was told that she could not apply. She complained to the board chair and the CEO but did not get the job.

The nonprofit hired a Latino man for the position and paid him $50,000 a year more than Adriana, who is also Latina, had earned doing the exact same job — nearly twice her salary. She says he was verbally abusive to her and was never disciplined for those actions.

“We have a real broken-ladder problem here,” says Churches, at the American Association of University Women, about the lack of women in leadership at nonprofits. “We have a tremendous pipeline of women and people of color out there. The numbers are there in terms of educational degrees and skills. This is really about bias. It’s not about biology.”

Barriers to Advancement

For some women, it feels like no matter what they do, that leadership role remains elusive. Sarah had focused her career on fundraising for arts institutions with the goal of becoming a museum director. She has a master’s in arts policy and administration and had worked for the National Gallery of Art and other prestigious institutions in collections and education as well as fundraising. After a move to Louisiana, she eventually found a job as the development director at a museum. Then the director left.

Only in her 30s, Sarah was the museum’s most successful fundraiser outside of its capital campaign. When the board began to look for a new director, she applied but never heard back. Later, a donor she was visiting told her the board was interviewing its two finalists.

“I was in a meeting. You keep it together, and then you leave and you go, What is that?” she says of hearing the news from a donor. “What’s the barrier? Why aren’t I at least considered, especially as an internal candidate who knows all your major donors?”

The board hired an older white man who had resigned from his previous position. After he started, he refused to do any fundraising, says Sarah, who asked that we use only her first name so she could speak freely. She left on good terms soon after to start her own consulting firm before taking another fundraising job three years later. “Because women are looked over for these jobs, for these promotions, we have to make our own paths,” she says.

Race and Gender

The discrimination is even worse for women of color. They are less likely to be in senior management or leadership positions than men of color, white women, or white men, according to the Building Movement Project’s report “Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector.” And they are the most likely to be in administrative roles or work directly with clients.

They are most likely to report inadequate salaries and lack of opportunity for advancement. Women of color and white women are the most likely to earn less than $50,000 a year and the least likely to earn more than $100,000 a year. The group’s 2019 survey, which has not yet been published, also found that women of color were less likely than other nonprofit workers to have received a performance-based raise or promotion. The Chronicle’s own analysis of the 100 largest charities found that only four of those organizations had women of color at the helm.

“It is double jeopardy to be Black and female,” says Makiyah Moody, a senior consultant at LaPiana Consulting who has been conducting interviews with Black women nonprofit leaders for three years for the Black and Bold series on the company’s website.

There are parts of the nonprofit world where white women have risen to positions of leadership but women of color still face discrimination, says Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of the 9to5 National Association of Working Women.

“It is a structural system that was built by other people, not built for folks like myself: women of color, first-generation immigrant, first-generation college grads doing this work,” she says. “Even with a high percentage of white women in leadership, there is still the nuance of a caste system, even within the nonprofit sector.”

Arlene Brown, who is the chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Triangle NC and is Black, says she has faced discrimination since her first job after college. She agreed to be identified but asked that the Chronicle not name any of her employers. She started at an administrative position at a foundation in South Carolina where she worked with six white women who were all about her age. She says she was never accepted. Her supervisor socialized with the other women but avoided her. “I was made to feel less than in every facet,” she says. “My ideas weren’t ever taken seriously.”

She left that job and moved to North Carolina where she temped for another nonprofit. She got hired in a permanent job, and when she applied for a more senior business-development position vacated by a white person, she says the job she was offered had a lesser title than the one she applied for and lower earning potential. She had to fight to get the job she had applied for.

Although she was as an assistant project manager, she says she was given the largest workload of anyone on her team. She asked for support and training but says she was given none. When a white man was hired for a similar position, she asked to go through his training with him — it was the only way she could think of to get support.

“Hand over fist, they were making sure that this young white man had everything he needed to be successful,” she says.

She says that after months of asking for support and managing an immense workload, she finally went to her doctor. Her blood pressure was so high her doctor told her to leave the job immediately.

Individual Change

Despite the intractable nature of gender inequity, there are glimmers of progress. Some organizations and even governments are making headway on shrinking the pay gap, in particular through new state laws that ban employers from asking candidates about their salary history.

The widely used tactic perpetuates pay inequity. Institutions base new employees’ salaries on what their old employers paid them — which means pay differences between women and men move from one workplace to the next. Advocates say that ending this practice everywhere would help to equalize pay.

State laws that forbid employers from asking job candidates about their salary history are helping to close pay gaps. A 2020 study found just that. It determined that, in the 12 states that have prohibited asking about salary history, most employers started to include a salary range in job postings. In those states, salaries for new employees increased by 5 percent. Women earned 8 percent more. People of color gained the most, earning 13 percent more. The change in policy hasn’t erased the pay gap entirely, but it has helped to shrink it for new hires.

Gender discrimination has sparked unionization efforts, and equity has become an important issue for union members, says Kayla Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union. Members have negotiated contracts that require organizations to include salary ranges with job postings as well as regular, across-the-board raises and clear paths for promotion as a way to curb bias. Parental leave for both men and women has also been important, says Blado. That way women are not overlooked for promotion or put on a different career path because employers are worried about them taking time off to have children.

But internal practices can only do so much. When it comes to choosing who leads a group, the board of directors is in charge. Research shows that the presence of women on a board can make all the difference. Organizations where women make up from one-third to one-half of the board members are more likely to hire women CEOs than groups with fewer female board members, according to a study by the University of Central Florida’s Lee.

That makes sense, says Mandi Stewart, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at North Carolina State University. According to data published in BoardSource’s “Leading with Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices” report, there is a gender match between the board chair and the nonprofit’s CEO at more than half of organizations. “That is where the comfort level is, to have like genders,” she says.

But boards often struggle with diversity, particularly at larger nonprofits, which are less likely to have women on their board, says Anne Wallestad, CEO of BoardSource.

“As a society, we are far from valuing women’s leadership and perspectives as much as we value men’s,” Wallestad says. “I think that there are probably some implicit biases at play in terms of whose leadership is [considered] most appropriate at those highest levels.”

Ultimately, gender equity has to be a high priority for nonprofits and their donors, says Tchen of Time’s Up. Women’s organizations and groups that work on gender equity receive only 1.6 percent of philanthropic dollars.

Unless women have an equal chance to rise to leadership positions in all organizations — including philanthropic ones — their knowledge and perspective, ideas, and point of view will not be adequately represented, she says. And if that happens, she adds, nonprofits will lose out, particularly if women’s losses from Covid linger.

“If we don’t have women and people of color in the not-for-profit sector, the disparities we already see in the donation patterns of philanthropy, the ability to really address the problems that are confronting the country right now will just grow because you will not have diversity of perspective in those decision-making rooms,” she says. “It is really troublesome.”

Some women are making change on their own, one person at a time, by mentoring and supporting others. Brown, through the nonprofit professional group in North Carolina, works with other young nonprofit employees to help guide them as they face some of the same inequitable treatment she did.

Her goal is to help them develop the tenacity and strength to rise through the ranks and create more equitable workplaces. “It’s beginning to make the change that we really want to see,” she says. “It has been the most rewarding and challenging experience of my life.”

By Jim Rendon Chronicle of Philanthropy 1/12/2021

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