Move the Damn Needle Already

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 6th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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After the loss of a loved one, we must endure the year “firsts.”  The first birthday, first holiday, first anniversary of the death and so many more.  I have come to realize that there’s also a year of “lasts.” 

Move the needle

As I contemplate the start of my last year as a full-time member of the workforce, I am excited about what I still want and need to accomplish and thrilled by many of the pending lasts (the various administrative tasks that I’m happy to be rid of).

I also feel some dismay, stemming from my reflections on the almost half century I have spent as a member of that workforce and how far we haven’t come.  I’m not usually a glass half empty person, but some things are difficult to see otherwise.

For example, this data point:  over 65% of women who say they have been targeted or bullied at work say that the bully was another woman.  Sadly, I was not surprised in reading that, as it parallels older data that show that male employees do more to pay it forward for their female colleagues than women do for their female colleagues. 

I was a college sophomore when I joined my first women’s “cell.”  Never a joiner, something propelled me to join a cell.  I can still remember going to my first cell meeting in a crowded, run-down, New York City apartment and being part of an amazing group of women of all ages, there to help and support one another as we moved on with our lives in a society that wasn’t sure it really wanted us.  Inspiring. 

Fast forward four years, I’m home for the holidays and my middle sister, my mother and I are sitting around the dining room table having a conversation about what it was like working as a woman in male dominated fields.  When my mother was pregnant with both my sister and I (we are 2.5 years apart), she had been a reporter, and the only female, covering the US Supreme Court.  At the time of our conversation, she was no longer working.  My sister was working on Capitol Hill for a wonderful congressman from Illinois, and I was working in the New York City jails.  

We shared our stories of harassment and discrimination and, despite the variance in locations and age, they were sadly similar.  Curiously, though, the three of us agreed that my mother suffered the least at the hands and mouths of her male colleagues than either my sister or I. 

Fast forward to today, and while I see progress, I don’t see as much as I would like in the proximate 50 years since that conversation.  The nonprofit sector workforce is 3/4 female and about 15% people of color.  Despite this, only 45% of ED/CEO positions are held by women. 

That number drops as the size of an organization increases, resulting in only 21% of organizations with budgets greater than $25 million having a female leader.  The numbers are far worse for people of color, as less than 20% of leadership positions are held by people of color.  Of course, the wage gap continues, with female EDs/CEOs making 66% of what their male counterparts make, despite comparability in experience, education, skills, etc.  (In fact, women with more education get paid less than men with the same or less education.)  Sadly, in no position on the nonprofit org chart is there pay equity for men and women, although some positions are closer than others. 

The presence of discrimination isn’t limited to staff.  Despite research showing the value women bring to boards—the more women on a board the better job that organization does in fulfilling its mission; the more women on a board the higher an ED’s/CEO’s satisfaction with the board’s performance—we find an inverse relationship between the size of an organization and the number of women on the board.  And forget about women as the leaders of the board.  

We also dismiss women of affluence.  One study found that almost half of female employees at larger nonprofits believe that their organization’s development efforts are definitely skewed toward affluent men over affluent women [despite the fact that as of 2015, women owned 51% (and growing) of US wealth], leaving lots of money on the table.

Though these numbers and, more importantly, the mindsets that created these numbers are infuriating, I do have some hope:  people are talking and talking more straightforwardly.  Whether these conversations hammer home the point that sexual harassment of any degree is not to be tolerated in the workforce and the woman is not to be blamed, or are addressing organization culture that welcomes diversity and pursues equity, people are actively engaging on these topics of social justice.  And, speaking of diversity, while I recognize that not everyone’s needle moves at the same pace, I am beyond the point where I just want to scream:  “move the damn needle already!” 

Sadly, I know that I have changed more personally during my nigh 50 year journey in the workforce than the workplace environment has changed.  And, even more sadly, I am coming to accept that there is little I can do in my one remaining year to move the damn needle.  May others succeed where I and my generation have failed.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.