Mind the Gaps

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 13th, 2017 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Earlier this week, the only male student in the class I’m teaching this summer did a presentation on the gender wage gap in the nonprofit sector.  And though, according to the Pew Research Center, millennials seem to be kicking it, such that in 2012, the gender wage gap in newly hired millennials was only 93%, it appears that this was but a temporary kick in the rear.

Sadly, indications are that the gap begins to return to the larger disparity of the whole (84%) as millennials move into their 30s.  Very disappointing overall, particularly given that in a class of 12 in a master’s program for nonprofit leaders, 83% of the students are women.  Odds are very good that those two men are making more money—and will continue to make more money—than their female peers doing the exact same jobs.   And, odds are that those two men, should they want, are more likely to become executive directors of large organizations than are their female colleagues.  Sadly, though, with the exception of the much smaller wage gap for millennials, this is all old news:  women earn less than men; women are less likely to lead large organizations; women are less likely to be board presidents.

The recently released report from the Building Movement Project, “Race to Lead:  Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” tells very much a parallel story—and offers very similar suggestions for remediation.  The report builds on data from a survey of over 4300 current nonprofit employees, 42% of whom are people of color (POC) and more than three quarters self-identified as either gen X (39%) or millennials (38%).  The opening salvo of the report is that “…people of color in the executive director/CEO role [have] remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse.”  Some of the very same false assumptions that fueled the on-going gender wage gap were found to be operating, just as falsely, in the racial disparity in leadership positions.  For example, almost equal numbers of POC and whites have a college degree, with or without some graduate work (39% and 42%, respectively); 41% of POC and 44% of whites have a master’s degree.  Nine percent of POC and 7% of whites have a terminal degree—Ph.D., MD, JD, etc.

Based on this, the difference in representation in the executive director role isn’t due to insufficient education on the part of POC, for sure.  Nor does it appear to be differences in the pool on the immediate rung below on the ladder.  Given the current way of hiring people for a new position based on the position they currently hold, more whites aren’t becoming executive leaders because more whites are in middle management positions.  Eighteen percent of both POC and whites self-identified as middle managers, but 48% of POC and 53% of whites self-identified as senior management or CEO.   Nor, just in case anyone might be wondering, is it salary that could be influencing things, as in each of the five salary categories, from less than $30,000 to $150,000 or more, POC and whites are either one percentage point apart or exactly the same.  Sometimes POC had the 1% advantage, other times it was whites; and the one category where the groups were on par was at the top:  earning $150,000 or more.  Thus, interestingly, whatever is happening to prevent POC from sitting in the top chair, it isn’t operating when determining salary.

If education and prior experience are on par, thereby eliminating two key variables in hiring decisions, then perhaps the underrepresentation of POC in the top chair is due to a very simple thing:  POC don’t want to be executive directors to the same degree as whites.  But the opposite is true:  50% of the POC respondents said they definitely or probably are interested in being in the top leadership position, compared to only 40% of whites.  Equal amounts (26%) of both groups said that maybe they would be interested, and 34% of whites say that they were definitely or probably not interested, compared to 24% of POC.  So, the aspiration is there.

One of the really striking differences in the two groups came in the answers to why they were not interested in becoming executive directors.  No surprise, there was virtually no difference in those who stated that their work/life balance priorities didn’t fit well with an executive director (33% of POC, 34% of whites)–the number one explanation we have been hearing for a good dozen years from those not interested in being the head honcho.  Another 19% of POC and 28% of whites aren’t interested in the top job because they don’t see their own skills and interests being “well suited” for the position.  This would seem to underscore that POC underrepresentation isn’t due to lack of aspiration or interest.  But the response option to the question why no interest in the executive director position that should give us all pause is the one chosen by 21% of POC and only 10% of whites:  they are pursuing options outside of the nonprofit sector.  Why are POC twice as interested in leaving the sector as whites?

There is one thing that may be keeping POC out of the top spot more frequently than whites:  39% of POC saw themselves as “good” fundraisers, compared to 46% of whites.  What good means isn’t explained, but I’m going to assume it means having a successful track record of raising funds.   Moving from there, is the lower percentage of POC who see themselves as good fundraisers from a real lack of understanding how to do successful fundraising or a reflection of the challenges of POC doing fundraising in what is, without question, a very white dominated arena?  Much like women who struggled for decades to break into the ranks of the C-suite not for lack of skills, talent, education, etc., but because they could not penetrate the “old boys club” that guarded the gates of the C-suite, are POC not being as successful in fundraising as whites not because they lack the skills but because they lack the entrance?

We are the sector that, among other things, is supposed to care for the underdog, enrich our communities, have other people’s backs.  If we, as we are, are failing our own employees, not acting as a role model, how can we do well for the rest of society?  We have known for a while, based on much research, that women leaders aren’t as supportive of women subordinates as they should be and we would want them to be, and female-led nonprofit boards are likely to pay executive directors less than male-led boards.  And, according to “Race to Lead,” we know that almost three-quarters of POC think predominantly white boards “often don’t support the leadership potential of staff of color,” compared to almost two-thirds of whites.  The facts—education, readiness, skills, etc.—don’t support this behavior.

Insidious biases and, perhaps, as “Race to Lead” notes (though I’m not sure in this day and age we should let people off the hook this easily), “unconscious assumptions about race” have a stronghold on too many people.  If we, as a sector, allow this to continue, allow another report 10 years from now to paint the same or similar picture (as has happened with women in the workplace), we will have failed in our mission.





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